April 26 2017 01:11 PM

Bishop finds a safe place for town halls: Small-town Stockbridge, a GOP stronghold

STOCKBRIDGE — The symbol was made of wood and string with 110 notes attached to the string, hung like clothes on a clothesline. Each note was a message to U.S. Rep. Bishop from constituents. Across the street from a nondescript American Legion building in Stockbridge, Kirsten Fermaglich and Julie Libarkin hoisted the protest symbol in hopes of catching the eye of Bishop,R- Rochester, as he exited the last of three town halls.

The 110 notes flapped in the wind, and the women waited with several others for the town halls to end. The time for its conclusion came and went. And still they waited.

The sky opened up and poured sheets of rain on them. But there were still there. Hoping to get his attention.

“I really felt like we were there representing all the people who couldn’t be there,” said Libarkin, 44. “We weren’t all invited to the table.”

The two MSU professors and their supporters stood out in the storm. Bishop, a former state Senate leader now in his second term in Congress representing the 8th District, was inside the American Legion building defending against critics that he was too aloof from his constituents.

Some might think Bishop picked Stockbridge because it was a safe place for a Republican in Democratic Ingham County.

Bishop carried Stockbirdge Township 53.5 percent to 30.4 percent for Democrat Suzanna Shkreli. The county went the other way: 56 percent for Shkreli and 38 percent for Bishop.

Bishop explained the choice differently. “We opted for this because those of you who are here asked to meet and talk,” Bishop explained to the first group of 12 constituents he met with. “We’d like to have the chance to actually talk and listen at events like this, rather than just shout at each other.”

Some of Bishop’s colleagues in Congress have had town halls with hundreds of participants. Shouting and anger tended to prevail in those events. Some of Bishop’s critics have hosted their own events with a cardboard cutout of him acting in his stead. He declined to participate in that town hall, held in Livingston County and drawing over 500 people.

Sitting in front of a U-shaped set up of tables, so participants were facing him, Bishop fielded questions and concerns during the three meetings about his vote to defund Planned Parenthood, the Republican’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and President Donald Trump’s budget plan submitted last month.

Libarkin and Fermaglich pointed out that Stockbridge is in a remote part of the county. The village of just over 1,200 people is nearly 95 percent white, according to City-Data. com. The 8th Congressional District, with a population of just over 700,000 people, is much more diverse, with just over 86 percent of the population identifying as white, according to Ballotpedia.

Bishop’s office, after months of public pressure from constituents and State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr.,D-Meridian Township, to hold a town hall, announced the meetings with a brief sign-up option on the congressman’s website. Nearly as soon as he posted the notification — without any indication where the meetings would be or when — the slots, limited to 30, were full.

Bishop defended the small meeting size by noting he traveled the district “regularly” holdings meetings, including with groups like the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Ingham Community Health Centers. Even so, fewer showed up at each of the one-hour session.

It is, critics said, yet another example of a congressman ducking the people he represents and being less than transparent and forthright in his communications.

The meetings were called after residents of the 8th Congressional District, which includes all of Ingham and Livingston counties as well as the northern half of Oakland county, were angered by his tele-townhalls. Those events were held in the evening, but as many as 30,000 people at a time were brought onto the calls.

Fermaglich said Bishop told callers on the tele-townhall they were “more accessible and efficient.”

But the contrast between the electronic calls and the more intimate face-to-face townhalls like those in Stockbridge struck her as “ironic.”

“Meeting with small groups of people, in a meeting closed to the general public, during the day on a work day, makes it harder for people,” she said. “It’s completely inefficient. I feel he is doing it simply to reduce the number of people being critical of decisions.”

Sixty-five year old retiree Liz Meyers said the combination of events so far appear to her as a way to “bottleneck” conversations. More important, she said, by limiting attendance and back and forth with his constituents, Bishop is preventing them from developing “an identity and a consensus.”

The former social worker said the congressman’s decision to locate his district office in Brighton was also troublesome. Former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Brighton, had one office, which was in Lansing, a key population center in the district.

“He should make himself accessible to the entire district,” she said.

“The Lansing office is at the far end of the district,” Bishop explained in an interview. “We try — you know no good deed goes unpunished. We tried to set the location of the office to accommodate the district. Right now it’s actually in the center of the district.”

Meyers dismissed that response. “He needs to be accessible to everybody. We’re his bosses.”