In Republican-Leaning Districts, Lawmakers Shy Away From Broaching Impeachment

In Republican-Leaning Districts, Lawmakers Shy Away From Broaching Impeachment

11 mins read

HOWELL, Mich. — The message printed on a pair of handmade wood-and-cardboard placards could not have been clearer as Representative Elissa Slotkin gazed out on a crowd of about 300 of her constituents who gathered for a town hall-style meeting to discuss their biggest concerns: “IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY NOW.”

“I just want her to know that some of her constituents are there,” said Patricia Onelio, 61, who staked out seats with her husband in the front row, determined for their demands to be seen by their congresswoman, a Democrat in a Republican-leaning district who has resisted calls to impeach President Trump. “He gets more emboldened by the minute, so I just think it’s important for us to show up and let her know where we stand.”

Here in this town about an hour northwest of Detroit that Mr. Trump carried by seven points in 2016, and in similar districts throughout the country where Democratic victories last year handed the party control of the House, lawmakers like Ms. Slotkin hardly need the reminder.

But while attendees had scrawled enough questions about impeachment on the index cards provided that the moderator immediately raised the topic, and returned to it a second time, there was little pushback to Ms. Slotkin’s wait-and-see approach.

“I want to be very honest, that I believe impeachment is a very big step — I believe it is something that should not be taken lightly — and it has to be something where we bring people along,” she said. If the Trump administration fails to respond to the many subpoenas that have been issued by the Judiciary Committee, she added, “we may be in a different world.”

Despite the efforts of pro-impeachment activist groups to transform August into a Tea Party-style series of grass-roots revolts that might force Democrats of all stripes to throw their support behind impeachment, the groundswell has yet to reach this politically crucial group of lawmakers in Republican-leaning districts. Instead, they are staying cautious and, in some cases, even trying to avoid mentioning the word, and many of their constituents — even impeachment supporters — appear willing, at least for now, to tolerate that reluctance.

In more than two dozen interviews in districts like these in three states over the past week, some voters said they wished their representative in Congress would hurry up and endorse an impeachment inquiry in order to send an unmistakable signal that Mr. Trump’s actions were illegal and unacceptable. But most were either strongly opposed or said they understood the reluctance to set the process in motion, given the degree to which it could divide the country, the likelihood of failure given Republican control of the Senate and the political stakes for their representatives if they backed it.

“The main issue is letting it play out in the 2020 election,” said Blaise Molitoris, Ms. Onelio’s sign-toting husband, who called Ms. Slotkin’s circumspection“fair” and said he understood her stance despite his own eagerness to see Mr. Trump impeached. “It’s not good for the country — just the divisiveness — but leaving it as is and not holding the president accountable for his actions just can’t stand in my book.”

To be sure, many Democrats in districts around the country have confronted strident calls from constituents over their six-week August vacation to endorse impeachment, and some of them have heeded the message. One hundred and thirty Democrats now support impeaching Mr. Trump, a number that has grown in the weeks since the recess began. A coalition of progressive groups has mounted a campaign — called “Impeachment August” — to use the break to try to win over converts, texting 280,000 constituents in more than 70 congressional districts to notify them about lawmakers’ events and encourage constituents to show up and demand it.

At an event near Pittsburgh, constituents pressed Representative Conor Lamb about impeaching Mr. Trump, asking why he was “lagging behind” his colleagues on the issue, according to a report by the local NPR affiliate. Representative Andy Kim was heckled during a gathering last month in Riverside, N.J., with shouts of “Do your job” and “Why’s it taking so long — I want him gone!” according to local reports.

But in an interview last week, Mr. Kim said he was hearing far more from his constituents about gun safety, the economy and health care as well as local issues. During a 90-minute town hall-style meeting Thursday evening that Mr. Kim held in a middle school cafeteria in Forked River, attendees stuck to the topic advertised — the dismantling of a nearby nuclear plant, which has generated controversy among residents — and there was not a single question or interruption about impeachment.

“These are not issues that can wait till the next election; I mean, this is happening right now,” Mr. Kim said in an interview after the session, careful never to utter the word “impeachment” even as he was asked about it. “I’ve seen what happens when we have just massive gridlock in Washington, and how it just paralyzes everything else that we do. So, you know, I worry about that side of things. I want to make sure we can keep delivering on health care and other issues.”

Activists who showed up with signs supporting the Democratic plan for a single-payer, government-backed health care system known as “Medicare for All” said they also favored impeaching the president. But they had not come to bend Mr. Kim’s ear on that.

“My point of view is Medicare for all and the Green New Deal are 10 times more important,” said Tom Cannavo, 59, a retired prosecutor from Beachwood, N.J.

It is a sentiment that resonates with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has staunchly refused to rush into an impeachment proceeding she says neither Congress nor the country is ready to pursue, in part out of concern for the political fortunes of lawmakers in districts like these whose constituents are not clamoring for the move. In a conference call with her caucus in recent weeks, Ms. Pelosi said the public “isn’t there on impeachment,” adding that Democrats have to balance “our responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution, and to be unifying and not dividing.”

In Oklahoma City, where voters helped elect Representative Kendra Horn as the first Democrat to represent the state’s Fifth District in nearly half a century, at least one of her events last week was targeted by activists, as Mr. Kim’s and Ms. Slotkin’s were, as part of “Impeachment August,” in a bid to encourage activists to show up and pressure the lawmakers to endorse the step.

But on Wednesday, as guests of the Northwest Oklahoma City Chamber asked Ms. Horn questions over plates of pasta and glasses of iced tea, no one raised the topic. Instead, a veteran rose to press about support for veterans in the community. Another man, his breathing tube in one hand, asked about efforts to control pharmaceutical costs. An immigration advocate wanted to know about the potential for moving forward with immigration overhaul.

“Impeachment would not be good in this district,” said Peter G. Pierce III, 69, who had asked about prescription drugs. A Democratic supporter of Ms. Horn, he said he would prefer to get rid of Mr. Trump “the old-fashioned way, and vote him out.”

“You don’t wound the king,” he added, “you kill him.”

Ms. Horn, without mentioning the “i” word in an interview on Thursday, said the forum was typical of what she had heard from voters across her Republican-leaning district — and what she had not.

“People are asking me what we can do about my student loans. ‘How can we get a doctor in our community?’” she said. “These are the things that can literally make a difference in somebody’s life on a day-to-day basis.”

“We’ve got to talk about and do the work that matters to people,” she said.

In a district where Mr. Trump won by nearly 14 percent, many voters are wary of the consequences of an impeachment inquiry.

“If they were able to get it through, would it set a precedent for future administrations that instead of working the problems out, we impeach?” asked Marvin Hazel, an Oklahoma City pastor and an independent who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and is a fan of Ms. Horn. “That would be a bad precedent to start.”

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