Slotkin hears from both sides on Trump impeachment inquiry

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Hartland — U.S. Rep Elissa Slotkin was greeted by packed meetings with constituents last week that featured boos and applause after the Holly Democrat backed an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump in late September.

In left-leaning East Lansing, so many people packed into Grand Traverse Pie Company that police began blocking entrances to maintain the fire code's limit on patrons. 

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, answers questions from the press after a meeting with constituents in East Lansing on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

In conservative Hartland, lines of protesters and Slotkin supporters stood outside in misty weather once the upstairs library meeting room was filled. The large room was packed even after a last-minute change of venue that aides said was done to accommodate the larger crowd.

Inside the crowded gatherings, Slotkin spoke of prescription drug reform, infrastructure and education funding. But it was her recent support of an impeachment inquiry that raised a cacophony of applause, boos and mingled shouts of “Let her speak” and “Fake news.”

“I know that it's clearly not popular,” Slotkin said Thursday in Hartland. “But I just felt compelled to do it because I just don’t know where this ends.”

For the first-term Democratic lawmaker in a Republican-leaning district, the residents’ reactions to Slotkin’s impeachment decision could make a world of difference in the upcoming 2020 race in the 8th Congressional District. Slotkin won by nearly 4 percentage points over Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in 2018, while Trump won the district by nearly 7 percentage points in 2016.

So far, two Republican candidates have declared their candidacy for the seat — State Board of Education member Nikki Snyder of Dexter and Mike Detmer, a Howell resident and general sales manager at a Michigan auto dealership.

Both candidates said it was Slotkin’s decision to back an impeachment inquiry that spurred them to enter the race. Snyder and Detmer said they saw nothing in the documentation of Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to warrant impeachment.

Lansing lawyer Kristina Lyke also plans to run for the seat and spoke about her candidacy Thursday at a Republican event in Livingston County, said Norm Shinkle, the 8th District Republican chairman. He expected additional GOP candidates to emerge in the coming weeks. 

“Certainly, the base on the Republican side is furious about this impeachment inquiry, but most of those votes were not gettable for her in the first place,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO for the Grassroots Midwest campaign consultancy in Michigan.

"The folks that are going to be essential, the swingiest parts of her district, are moving in support of impeachment on a national level,” he said, referring to early polling.

The 8th District includes Livingston and Ingham counties as well as northern Oakland County. Ingham is traditionally a Democratic stronghold, while Livingston is reliably Republican. Northern Oakland has normally been a GOP base, but the county has become increasingly Democratic friendly in the Trump era after Hillary Clinton won it by 8 points in 2016.

The town halls Slotkin held in Livingston, Ingham and Oakland counties allowed the Democrat to directly interact with constituents, but her impeachment decision also has roused diehard partisans on both sides who can devolve the discussions into rally-like atmospheres, said John Sellek with Lansing-based public relations firm Harbor Strategic and a former staffer for Republican ex-Attorney General Bill Schuette.

"Because of her switch on the impeachment position, the intensity of focus on her seat ratcheted up significantly," Sellek said. 

How residents reacted

The congresswoman’s measured approach to the possibility of impeachment prompted Ken Nadler on Wednesday to squeeze into the East Lansing pie and coffee shop. It was the Okemos resident’s first time attending such an event.

“She views these questions the way I do, which is that Congress is there to do the good work of the country instead of grandstanding,” Nadler said.

Ken Nadler of Okemos speaks with U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, during a meeting she held with constituents in East Lansing on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Nadler said he supports Slotkin's stance on an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Tom Moran of Tyrone Township said he was initially opposed to impeachment hearings, thinking it might fan the flames of the already heated partisanship that’s taken hold of the 8th District and nation. But he has changed his mind.

“At this point, you’ve got to draw a line,” Moran said. “You have to stop things that are going on in Washington now. It's an abuse of power, and I respect Elissa Slotkin for standing up for impeachment hearings.”

Slotkin’s moderate character attracted voters, such as Nadler and Moran, in the 8th last year and will continue to guide her into 2020, Hemond said.

“Her political advisers want to keep her on a very moderate path,” he said. “Fortunately for them, that’s who she is. Rep. Slotkin is kind of driving the bus here in terms of her political approach.”

A former Republican precinct delegate, Gwen Bliss of Hartland said she “held my nose” when she voted for Bishop in 2016, whom she referred to as a “career politician." But Bliss said she is equally disgruntled by Slotkin’s impeachment support, noting it smelled of similar political motivations.

While the 8th District elected Slotkin in 2018, it was the same area that voted Trump into office in 2016, something Slotkin should keep in mind, she said.

“I hope she understands that when she puts herself forward as our representative that she represents us and, if we are this divided about this issue, I wouldn’t go forward with any of this,” Bliss said of the impeachment inquiry.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, listens to a question from South Lyon resident Bill Long during a meeting with constituents in Hartland on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Bill Long tipped his hat to Slotkin’s appearance on Fox News, noting Congress would be better off with “more Slotkins and fewer Pelosis and Schumers and Schiffs." But the South Lyon resident also questioned Slotkin’s support for the impeachment inquiry, urging her to instead wait for more facts to emerge.

“This is a serious matter that I think you guys are treating too lightly,” Long said during the Hartland meeting. “Plus, frankly, if you guys go ahead and impeach him, we may never have this meeting again because you might be out of here and be replaced by a Republican. That would be sad because you seem like a bright, young lady.”

Slotkin acknowledged a difference of opinion with Long on the impeachment inquiry but promised not to move forward with impeachment until she had the facts.

“You have my commitment that I will do that,” the first-term lawmaker said, but argued that an inquiry was needed to find those facts. “I have no foregone conclusions.”

Juggling other issues

Others raised concerns that the impeachment inquiry would distract Slotkin from policy pursuits regarding prescription drug prices, chemical contaminant abatement and election security. But Slotkin promised she could “walk and chew gum at the same time” and said the impeachment inquiry is part of her duty to “be a check and balance on the executive branch.”

“Frankly, it's more important than ever that those of us who are not on the committees of jurisdiction on the investigation double down on things like prescription drugs and PFAS,” she told reporters Wednesday, referring to a "forever chemical" contaminant. Slotkin pointed toward recent PFAS meetings in Washington, D.C., and a scheduled town hall scheduled for Monday on health care and drug costs in Rochester as proof of the commitment.

Soon after her appearance in East Lansing, a GOP tracker released video noting Slotkin made that vow at the same time a Democratic caucus call was occurring on the prescription drug reform.

LInda Lee Tarver, president of the Republican Women's Federation of Michigan and an Ingham County resident, stands outside an East Lansing coffee shop on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, protesting U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin's stance on an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

For state GOP organizers who turned out in force for both events, Slotkin’s impeachment inquiry support and prior history with the CIA served as proof that she’s part of what they called a “coup attempt” by the CIA and FBI to force Trump out of office.

Shinkle, the 8th District Republican chairman and a member of the Board of State Canvassers, carried protest signs outside both events, one of which read “He won; get over it.”

“She’ll be gone in 2020,” Shinkle said, but noted Bishop should remove any doubt of his candidacy so other candidates feel more comfortable stepping forward. “The voters are going to have a choice in the primary and the general.”

Bishop hasn't ruled out a rematch, party insiders say, but he wouldn’t comment on his plans when asked recently whether he would enter the race.

Slotkin had amassed over $1.65 million in her campaign war chest as of Sept. 30. The Republican National Committee has said it has raised over $500,000 for Slotkin's eventual Republican challenger.

Avoiding Democratic controversies

But Slotkin distanced herself from fellow Michigan Democrats who have taken controversial stances on other state and national issues. Noting that consideration of impeachment should be a “somber” moment, Slotkin didn't support Detroit Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s sale of “Impeach the MF” T-shirts.

“The weight of what’s going on needs to lead the tone,” she said. “So I don’t love those T-shirts.”

When a Livingston County constituent asked what Slotkin could do to ameliorate the $128 million in school aid funding vetoed last Monday by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Slotkin noted school aid is largely state-based, but acknowledged the rural county could be hit by Whitmer’s vetoes.

“I will certainly take up my concerns with Gov. Whitmer,” she said.

And when Michigan Women for Trump co-founder Meshawn Maddock of Milford asked Slotkin about Rochester Hills Democratic U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens' recent heated call for the end of the NRA, Slotkin noted she grew up in a gun-owning family.

“I don’t think the NRA is the base of the problem; I think our legislation is the base of the problem,” Slotkin said Thursday.

Slotkin's continued moderation on those issues is a "smart strategy," Sellek said, but "once you jump on board with this issue (impeachment), I think it's nearly impossible to make a separation.

"If you’re watching the impeachment debate, you’re either in or out, and that puts you on one side or the other.” 

Twitter: @DNBethLeBlanc