GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It had all the makings of the anti-Trump town hall meetings Republicans have come to fear.
Retired health care industry worker Paul Bonis stood up and implored Republican Rep. Justin Amash to commit to keeping Obamacare — his life, the 61-year-old cancer survivor said, might actually depend on it. But Amash refused, and the auditorium packed with some 600 mostly liberal constituents erupted in boos and jeers for a good 30 seconds.
“You are not supporting your constituents!” yelled one person.
Instead of getting defensive or ducking for cover, though, the 36-year-old Michigan lawmaker leaned in, coolly explaining his position on the health care law. He made a point of trying to connect with the overwhelmingly Democratic room, jabbing President Donald Trump for what he called racially insensitive remarks and overreaching policies. Amash seemed to enjoy the give-and-take so much that he stayed 40 minutes longer than scheduled and promised to book an even bigger venue next time.
It was a jarring juxtaposition from the hunkered-down, protective posture many GOP lawmakers have assumed in recent weeks as Democrats storm their town hall meetings and congressional offices. At a closed-door, all-conference meeting on Tuesday, House Republicans were advised to limit crowd sizes, hire security and ensure they literally have an exit strategy to ensure they don’t get stampeded by protesters.
Many lawmakers are holding “telephone town halls” to avoid the tumult.
“Most of my colleagues, unfortunately, go with the flow; they want to stick to their comfort zones in many cases,” Amash told POLITICO in a brief interview after the event. “This doesn’t make me uncomfortable. I like to be here, hearing the different perspectives. I’m not afraid of my positions.”
Ditching Washington’s formal button-down for a casual maroon sweater and corduroys, Amash kicked off the evening calling for an end to partisan rancor that makes people “lose sight of facts.” He lambasted Trump for his executive order travel ban — part of which he called “unlawful;” the rest of which he said was simply bad policy.
“It is in my opinion [the refugee ban is] fine on legal grounds but it doesn’t appear to be sound policy,” Amash said. The crowed whooped. “If you have a policy that is just a worldwide ban on everyone, I think that goes too far.”
In one sense, Amash’s unique libertarian views give him room to maneuver where other Republicans can’t. While he’s one of the most conservative members of Congress, Amash has openly criticized Trump for months — sentiments that pleased the crowed here in this left-leaning town in his predominantly GOP district.
The crowd roared in approval, for instance, when Amash said Trump should release his tax returns. When another women questioned him about the recent raid in Yemen that Trump authorized, which resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier, Amash noted that he constantly pushes the House’s defense and intelligence panels to investigate such actions, “and this is no exception.”
The evening, though, was far from a breeze for Amash. The crowd vocally disapproved of his anti-gun control position, and his call to eliminate the Education Department.
Some showed up to the town hall with a clear agenda. Indivisible — the exploding nationwide group trying to reverse-engineer the tea party movement for progressives — handed out packets instructing constituents what to ask Amash: “If Justin doesn’t give you real answers, call him out for it,” the pamphlet read. “Do not give up the mic until your question is sufficiently answered… Boo when he falls back on regressive values. Record it all… Share it on social media."
Often, Amash pushed back. When one person yelled at him to “overturn Citizens United!” — the Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to more money in politics — Amash just chuckled.
“I receive the least amount of PAC money of almost anyone in Congress,” he shot back. “I receive almost nothing… it’s all publicly filed so see for yourselves.”
The most contentious exchanges surrounded the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the formal name of the Democratic health care law Amash appears to have adopted after being scolded by constituents during his last town hall for calling it “Obamacare.”
Bonis pressed Amash to commit to safeguarding protections for people with pre-existing conditions. When Amash wouldn’t do it, one person shouted at him to “answer the question,” to which he responded: “I am answering the question... I said I would not support that provision. I would not.”
“Why? Why? Why?” people screamed. “That’s wrong!” another called out.
Amash at that moment had to pause the conversation, telling the crowd that “yelling at each other does not resolve the problem.”
Amash effectively defused tensions, though, with jokes about his poor singing and a quip to the liberal crowd that “with Donald Trump in office, I don’t know why you’re such big fans of the federal government!”.
Twenty –five minutes after he was supposed to finish, at least 50 hands were still in the air seeking to ask questions. When the event ended, they lined up to talk to Amash.
At a town hall in January, Amash seethed that everyone couldn’t attend because of the fire code restriction on numbers. He picked a bigger space he was sure would hold everyone who showed up Thursday. Even then, he learned that coordinators had to turn people away.
“At our next one," he vowed, "we’re going to have to have a bigger place."