At Raucous Town Hall, House Democrat Endorses Impeachment -- And Bets On Civility

First Elissa Slotkin heard booing from the suburban Detroit audience. Then she got applause.

ROCHESTER, Mich. ― Difficult political conversations are a way of life for Elissa Slotkin, the first-term House Democrat from Michigan who announced her support of impeachment on Monday.

She has them all the time in her district, where Republican voters usually outnumber Democrats. And sometimes she has them at family gatherings, where politics can skew the same way.

This year she spent Thanksgiving with her in-laws, who are lifelong Republicans and Trump supporters. They all get along and support her, Slotkin told HuffPost, though mostly they focus on their shared values ― “the things that you all really love and really care about,” Slotkin said.

And when those inevitable differences come up? “Sometimes it’s best just to go get some more mashed potatoes.”

There were no mashed potatoes on hand Monday when Slotkin appeared at a town hall to explain her decision on impeachment, just days before the full House is set to vote on it.

Roughly 500 people crammed into a meeting room on the campus of Oakland University, a remarkably large crowd for 11 a.m. on a workday, and among them were a small but determined group of Trump supporters who had little interest in finding shared values or, for that matter, letting Slotkin make her case.

The protesters started shouting as Slotkin began her presentation ― “Democrats are swine!” “MAGA!” ― and kept at it for the entirety of her appearance, which lasted nearly an hour.

Slotkin’s response was to keep talking, as calmly as possible. She acknowledged the protesters and made a plea for civility, then made her arguments in the hopes that maybe the rest of the audience was listening.

The strategy worked well enough in the room. The protesters made their presence known but, all told, Slotkin supporters in attendance seemed to outnumber her critics. As she made her case, on impeachment or anything else, she got loud, sustained applause.

Now the question is whether that kind of strategy can keep working ― and not just in this one Michigan district.

The Political Challenge Facing Democrats

Although the House is likely to approve impeachment, the Senate is unlikely to convict and remove Trump from office. It would take a two-thirds vote to do so, which seems nearly impossible given that Republicans have the majority and leaders such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee have already said they want the impeachment effort to “die quickly.”

That will shift the focus to the November 2020 elections, where the future of Trump’s presidency ―and of Democrats who support impeachment ― will depend on what the voters think.

Nationally, that has been working in the Democrats’ favor: More Americans support impeachment than oppose it, according to the polls. But gerrymandering and the geographic clustering of Democratic voters means there is a disproportionate number of districts where Republican voters typically outnumber the Democrats.

Democrats won several of these districts in 2018, enabling them to seize control of the House. But they remain tough places for Democrats to win, and Slotkin is in one of them.

Michigan’s 8th Congressional District stretches from the northernmost Detroit suburbs in the east to Lansing in the west, with lots of rural territory in between. It is overwhelmingly white and relatively conservative. In 2016, Trump won it by 7 percentage points, and the incumbent Republican congressman, Mike Bishop, won by 14.

But two years later, Bishop lost to Slotkin by 4 points in a race that garnered national attention as a bellwether for the public’s mood.

Health care was the focus of that campaign, with Slotkin attacking Bishop for his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And on Monday, Slotkin did her best to return to that theme, first by touting a bill on prescription drugs that the House passed last week.

The legislation would, for the first time, allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies over prices in a way that most other countries do. Individual consumers would save money and so would the federal government, which would then plow some of the savings back into Medicare in order to finance dental and vision services.

Polls suggest this is wildly popular, and the crowd in Rochester on Monday clapped heartily. But the protesters either didn’t believe her or weren’t interested. As she was explaining the benefits, one protester shouted out, “Handout!” and another said, “Socialism.”

They reacted with similar exasperation when Slotkin talked about a new trade bill, which, unlike the prescription drug bill, is likely to pass the Senate and get Trump’s signature.

“Trump’s idea!” one protester shouted.

The Argument Over Impeachment

Eventually, Slotkin turned to impeachment. Back in September, Slotkin was one of seven newly elected Democrats, all with military or national security backgrounds, who wrote a joint Washington Post column suggesting Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian officials might be impeachable but withholding judgment until Congress could investigate.

Since then, hearings by the House Intelligence Committee have produced sworn testimony by several political and career officials that Trump was pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden ― and that it was the chance to cast aspersions a potential 2020 presidential rival, not actual corruption, that mattered to Trump.

On Monday, Slotkin said she considered that evidence along with guidance she found in the nation’s founding documents: “I went back to the Constitution, to The Federalist Papers.” And then, referencing her experience as a former intelligence officer, she said, “I took it seriously and I did what I was trained to do ― I made an objective decision based on the facts.”

The reaction to her explanation was the same as before. She got applause from most of the audience and jeers from the protesters, who broke into chants of “Four more years.”

Deborah Day, one of the Trump supporters shouting at Slotkin, had spoken to HuffPost before the event began. She said that Slotkin had run for office as a moderate only to show herself as a liberal, and Day didn’t think the evidence from the House hearings proved anything.

“If he went to the bathroom the wrong way, I think they would try to impeach him ― that’s the way the Democrats feel,” Day said.

She added that Trump was helping the country and boosting the economy, and she blamed former President Barack Obama for dividing the nation. “It’s just sad we got to this point.”

Faith In The Voters

After the event, Slotkin told HuffPost that she wasn’t angry or frustrated with the protesters. She noted that, in her 2018 campaign against Bishop, she had criticized him for dodging town halls in order to avoid protests over his health care vote.

“It doesn’t upset me,” Slotkin said. “I mean, it doesn’t make me feel good, but it doesn’t upset me because that’s their right, they have the right to peacefully protest. I have the responsibility to stand in front of my constituents and listen to them.”

Slotkin also said she hoped that even those who disagreed with her would respect the way she arrived at her decision. “I believe in the voters,” Slotkin said. “I believe in their decency.”

That’s something of a gamble in this political environment, though perhaps not a totally crazy one. On the way into the town hall, while some pro- and anti-Trump protesters were arguing outside, two men on opposite sides of the issue walked in.

Robert Bertolin, a retired GM engineer, said he supported impeachment; Russell Stabile, a retired grocery store owner, said he opposed it. But they were smiling as they discussed it and, afterward, Stabile said he wouldn’t hold an impeachment vote against Slotkin.

“I have positive feelings towards her,” he said.

If even some of the voters who oppose impeachment feel the same way, Democrats like Slotkin might just be OK.

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