BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—After 55 minutes of boos, grave concerns and complaints, Rep. Justin Amash seemed to be looking to break the tension at his afternoon town hall.
“You look happy,” Amash said with a nervous but hopeful laugh before handing over the microphone to a constituent, adding, “This will probably be a doozy of a question."
The constituent went on to ask about the congressman’s positions on federal oversight over natural resources.
The scene is emblematic of the boisterous 90 minute town hall meeting Amash hosted Thursday afternoon in a recreation center gymnasium in downtown Battle Creek.
The four-term Republican from Western Michigan, known for his admiration of Austrian economics, strict adherence to the Constitution and a penchant for wearing jeans and zip-up sweaters (both of which were on full display) was slated to spend 60 minutes with constituents who gathered at the Full Blast Recreation Center.
But for 90 minutes, Amash fielded questions on health care, the environment, immigration, gun control and the Department of Education from an angry crowd of roughly 300 people at noon on a Thursday, only ceasing to take questions and comments when he was informed by aides that their allotted time with the venue had run out.
While the Amash town hall featured questions on multiple topics—the congressman says he doesn’t pre-screen questions—it was repeal of the Affordable Care Act that dominated. Amash has long opposed Obamacare, arguing that the federal law needs to be repealed and health care left to states.
“NO!” and “SINGLE PAYER” were common refrains to Amash’s attempts to further explain his health care policy policy positions.
Moreover, signs reading “Save the ACA” dotted the crowd and following the event, one constituent advised him, “don’t touch Medicare or Medicaid.”
As Amash—an Arab-American whose parents immigrated from Palestine and Syria—attempted to explain how his parents would have been banned under President Donald Trump’s stalled immigration executive order, he was interrupted again with yells of “GOOD!” by a handful of attendees.
In spite of the angry and concerned constituents who appeared to run the political gamut, including a self-proclaimed “gun-toting, bleeding heart commie” asking the congressman about his ties to right wing groups like Club for Growth, Amash tried to a strike an even-keeled, congenial tone.
“Socialism and nationalism are dangerous ideologies for our country in the long run,” a flustered Amash said, having just advised attendees to read the Federalist Papers. “We have a very good country with a good system. We don’t want to become like Europe.”
But many constituents in Battle Creek, 120 miles west of Detroit, weren’t having it.
“It’s good for the oligarchs!” one man in the crowd shouted.
Long known as a company town and colloquially as Cereal City—due to its status as the world headquarters for Kellogg’s Cereal—Battle Creek has found hard times in recent years. The global food maker is no longer the largest employer in the city of just over 51,000. Instead that honor goes to a subsidiary of a Japanese auto manufacturer.
Given that Battle Creek fits the notion of a Rust Belt city almost perfectly, some of the anger at Amash and other politicians may not be surprising. But today’s town hall wasn’t all fire and brimstone.
Several attendees just wanted to share their story with Amash in the hopes that he might listen. That included Battle Creek resident and Vietnam veteran, Tomi Ailene Morris, a transitioned woman concerned about not only yesterday’s order by President Donald Trump withdrawing federal protections for transgender people, but also about the suicide rate for LGBT teenagers.
Morris, who was profiled in 2015 by local newspaper the Battle Creek Enquirer, told The Daily Beast she was fairly impressed with Amash’s willingness to listen, but still hopes for more opportunities to talk with the representative.
“He answered better than most politicians, and he at least listened to me. That’s step one,” Morris said. “I’d just like to sit down and talk to him. Between me and him and (tell him) what I believe.”
The same went for fellow Battle Creek resident Bonnie DiGennaro, who The Daily Beast spotted carrying around the book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” by journalist and activist Naomi Klein. DiGennaro said she had just begun reading the book, but prior to the start of the town hall had given Amash a copy of another climate-focused book, “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy,” by climate scientist Michael E. Mann.
DiGennaro said that like Morris, she just wants her congressman to listen, think, and hopefully “at least skim” the book, adding that Amash said he would do that.
“So I gave it to him and hoping that he will at least, perhaps change his position on global warming,” she said. “He was at another town hall meeting and he said he did not believe that global warming was a result of human activity.”
During the town hall, Amash said he believed the climate is changing, but was not convinced humans are are main cause.
"The question is what extent it's human caused," Amash said. "And to what extent we should devote resources to addressing it, versus the effect it has on our economy."
Amash has a lifetime score of 15 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.
The good news for Amash constituents like DiGennaro and Morris: they should get more chances to ask their congressman follow-up questions. Amash said he aims to continue doing more town halls, even at a time when representatives all over the country are facing the wrath of their constituents.
“It’s our job. we have to communicate with constituents, hear from constituents, learn from constituents,” Amash said. “It’s an honor to be in this position, people elect me to represent them and it’s my duty to be here.”
Nick Manes is a journalist based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Follow him on Twitter at @nickrmanes