BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan congressman is embracing the town halls that many of his Republican counterparts have avoided as people lash out at President Donald Trump's early actions and the planned repeal of the federal health care law.
"It's my duty to be here," Rep. Justin Amash, 36, said Thursday after taking pointed questions for 90 minutes during a raucous session inside a gymnasium in Battle Creek, 110 miles west of Detroit.
He will host another town hall on Saturday, his fourth in nearly six weeks, and promises more in the future.
The events are earning Amash, one of Trump's most prominent GOP critics, some respect from angry Democrats who vehemently oppose many of the congressman's stances but credit him for listening to his constituents rather than ducking them.
Others "don't have the guts to come and take the heat like Justin Amash just did," said Deborah Look, 60, a retired special education teacher from Battle Creek who participated in the town meeting. She said when Amash tweeted "Dude, just stop" last month after Trump's criticism of legendary civil rights activist John Lewis, it "gave me hope."
Known for libertarian views that put him at odds with the Republican establishment, the fourth-term congressman also has encountered criticism from Trump loyalists.
Reggie Dickson, 80, a retired principal from Battle Creek who voted for Trump to "drain the swamp" in Washington, said after the town hall that he likes Amash's adherence to the Constitution but is disappointed Amash never endorsed Trump, even after he won the GOP nomination. Trump won the district by more than 9 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton, better than Mitt Romney's margin in 2012.
Amash, who explains all his votes on social media, has made wide-ranging town halls a staple in western Michigan's 3rd Congressional District since 2011, when he took office amid the national tea party wave. He navigates the jeers, applause and interruptions that have become common in this year's unruly events by staying calm but also sticking with his positions. He urges people at odds in the crowds to be respectful to each other and says his job is to defend the Constitution, not the president, regardless of his political affiliation.
The son of a Palestinian refugee father and a Syrian immigrant mother, Amash said both of his parents would have been banned from the U.S. under Trump's travel ban that he has deemed "unlawful." He was the only House Republican to vote against the one-time exemption for retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to become secretary of defense.
When a man warned that his small business would close if the health law is repealed, Amash said he knows the insurance expansion has helped many people but "a lot of other people in the community have been hurt by it as well." The comment elicited boos and then more groans when Amash said those impacted negatively included audience members' neighbors.
Amash was blunt when electrician Scott Markham of Kalamazoo criticized him for voting recently to block an Obama-era regulation that would prevent an estimated 75,000 people with mental disorders from being able to purchase a firearm. Urging Amash to stand for "common-sense" gun controls and against the National Rifle Association, Markham said he was afraid for his two young sons in an age of mass shootings and decried how no policy changes were made after the Orlando nightclub massacre.
Amash said the rule was too broad and when crowd members demanded that he propose alternative legislation then, he responded: "I believe very strongly in the Second Amendment. I don't believe we should have additional regulations at the federal level."
Markham, 40, said afterward that he was "wholly unsatisfied" with Amash's response but was pleased he had the town meeting. He said his congressman, Rep. Fred Upton in the adjacent 2nd District in the state's southwestern corner, seems to be avoiding in-person blowback.
"Any time they have an opportunity to hear what the people who put them in office have to say I think is probably a good thing," Markham said. An Upton spokesman said he is doing telephone town halls because political discourse has coarsened so much that traditional ones "have become circus atmospheres."
So far, Amash — who considered a Senate bid in 2014 and might eventually look at it again as his profile grows — is the only one of Michigan's nine Republican House members to have hosted town halls this year. Fourth-term Rep. Bill Huizenga has scheduled an event for Saturday. Others are having tele-town halls that allow some of the thousands of participants who call in to ask questions.
"I'm comfortable with it," Amash said, describing his town meetings as heated occasionally but generally civil. "I know that at times people will get upset and disagree, and that's OK."
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