WEDNESDAY, April 19 — When 500 of your constituents create a cardboard cutout of you and ask it questions at a town hall in your stead, there has to be a breakdown in communication somewhere. That’s exactly what happened to U.S. Rep Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, at a town hall in Brighton just over a week ago.
“There was a slate of speakers who mostly came prepared to ask specific questions of him — the kind you would ask at a town hall. And then because he wasn’t there, people had done research about his stated positions, his public positions and then would say, ‘If he were here, he would probably say something like this,’” said Fred Dyer, a concerned citizen and member of Indivisible Michigan - 8th District, the group that organized the event.
The Indivisible Project is a direct response to President Donald Trump’s election. Started by two former congressional staffers, it is a progressive grassroots group that describes itself as a “resistance built on the values of inclusion, tolerance, and fairness” that aims to work as a majority to “stop a petty tyrant named Trump.”
And it is picking up steam. Nationally there are nearly 6,000 chapters, 14 of which exist in a 20-mile radius of Lansing. These chapters model themselves after the Tea Party which organized locally and “convince(d) their own MoCs (Members of Congress) to reject President Obama’s Agenda,” according to the Indivisible Project’s guide for involvement.
Bishop will hold three town halls in Ingham County tomorrow, all in Stockbridge, one of the county’s most conservative areas. Each one is limited to 30 residents, all of whom signed up and received confirmation in advance. They are scheduled to start at noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. for one hour each. The location is the American Legion hall, 839 S. Clinton St.
Dyer said that even with Bishop’s absence at the Brighton town hall, he felt “positive” and “energized” about the political engagement in his community.
“It wasn’t really done in a mocking way, it was just an attempt to try to come to an understanding of what people wanted to know, and what the people think he would say,” Dyer said. “I felt proud to be there because it was a really great demonstration of participatory democracy.”
The town hall stemmed from a sense of discouragement and frustration at Mike Bishop’s perceived disinterest in speaking with representatives. The concept of town halls is not a new one, and certainly not foreign to Indivisible event organizers, one of whom is Katusha Galitzine. She views town halls as vital tactics to get voices out to MoCs, but feels they are being continuously diminished.
“In the beginning, we saw people coming home for the first recess and holding town halls and constituents would come in holding signs that said ‘Agree,’ ‘Don’t Agree,’ and then ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ And when the next invitations came for town halls they said no signs were allowed,” Galitzine said. “So, when we’re talking about the barriers to entering these listening sessions, they are designed more and more strictly to only allow either people who agree or to take away a lot of those basic tools that are used in a town hall to express disagreement.”
That gradual diminishment of expression is partly where the protests came from.
Aptly called “Make Mike Listen!” protests, one already took place in Brighton. Another is planned for tomorrow in Stockbridge.
Though these listening sessions are designed to connect the congressman with his constituents, protesters argue that the effort is too little too late on multiple counts.
“Small groups of constituents – I think 18-20 – were allowed at a time,” Dyer said. “These were in the most remote parts of a big, sprawling district.”
The lack of advertising struck a nerve as well.
“Not only did we have these listening sessions available very briefly, the times have not been made publicly available on his website or the locations — so we’re basically piecing things together,” Indivisible Project member, Kirsten Fermaglich said. “I don’t think anyone perceived it as an open process where anybody who wanted to be able to talk with him would be able to do so.”
The gradual accumulation of Bishop’s standoffish behavior toward even his most persistent of constituents and his presentation of “bullet points” at his scheduled meetings has created distrust and frustration within his district.
“I think that there has been a build. I think that since the election people have been concerned with our country and with democracy,” said Fermaglich. “He didn’t want to hold a town hall, that he didn’t seem very responsive to phone calls and I kept calling every day.”
Mike Bishop’s office did not respond to interview requests.