The traditional purpose of a townhall meeting is for an elected official to meet with his constituents in public, giving the people a chance to ask questions and engage in dialogue with their representatives. But neither the organizers nor Amash apparently wanted to hear from or speak to a group of concerned senior citizens — even at a time when the fate of Medicare is being debated in Congress.
About eight senior citizens arrived at the Prince Conference Center on the Calvin College campus for a chance to question Amash concerning his voting record in regards to eliminating Medicare.
Once barred from attending the event, the seniors stood out in the parking lot where they were taking questions from this reporter and Tanya Somanader of Think Progress, the two members of the media who were denied access. Eventually, six security guards arrived on the scene and said that both the seniors and the reporters had to leave.
James Austin was one of the seniors who showed up at the event and was immediately denied entrance.
“I got a message on my answering machine about this meeting saying senior citizens should be particularly interested,” said Austin. “I thought there was going to be one heck of a crowd out there.”
Andy Schikel was also part of the group which was eventually forced off the campus by college security personnel.
Schikel says he and his wife received the same phone message as the other people who were forced to leave and said he simply wanted to question Amash on his voting record, which Schikel says “hurts the poor people of America.”
Schikel said, “It is private property, but someone said they didn’t have enough money for more room for more people because they only rented a small area.”
From the name tag list on the reception table it appeared that about a dozen people did not show up after registering but the extra space was still denied to both the non-registered seniors and the media. Saying they had ample time to register for the event she also denied access to anyone who did not register for the event, several Tea Party supporters were also turned away.
A couple of the organizers, upon hearing that reporters and constituents were being barred from the event, said there had to be some sort of mistake and apologized, saying they would remedy the situation by making sure they spoke with Rep. Amash as soon as he was available and urging him to answer questions.
But Lisa Dupont, an organizer with the Tea Party of West Michigan, said it was intentional to deny media access to the event.
“That’s our choice,” Dupont said. “We just wanted it to be laid back and comfortable, we’re asking the questions.”
Dupont went on to say that she believed that whenever the media was in the room it created an atmosphere of “nervousness” and if they opened up the event to the press it “then becomes about the press.”
Despite the reporters’ willingness to compromise — agreeing not to ask questions during the event, agreeing not to shoot video or photos and offering to pay the $10 registration fee — they were still not allowed inside.
Dupont said she would talk with other organizers and Amash to see if it could be done, but never came back with an answer.
In a rushed interview before the event Amash was willing to answer questions but did not seem willing to talk to Tea Party organizers to allow the media inside as well as the senior citizens.
“There are lots of events where the media are not allowed in,” said Amash. “It happens all the time, it’s not matter of whether I mind it or not.”
Amash continued to say “It’s not my event” when asked about the senior citizens and media.
Amash would not offer comment on the event itself, what was going to take place inside or whether he would be available for post-event comment.
Dupont said the event was entirely open to anybody and it was advertised on their website and Facebook page. However, in order to see the event and sign up a user first would have had to sign up with the Tea Party group’s website. The event did not appear on Rep. Amash’s website.
The event flyer said nothing about media not being allowed entrance.
After the event finished, and for the next two hours, organizers continually denied the media access to even the hallway outside of the event and Amash did not come back out.
Paul Meyer, a Tea Party member, continually threatened the reporters with calling security after media asked where Rep. Amash was located and when he would be available.
Meyer said he was asked to act as security but refused to identify who had asked him to do so and did not answer when asked whether he believed the media should be considered a security risk.
The media was eventually asked to leave the premises once again by security officials, who declined to say who had called them.
Joe DiSano is a political consultant for Main Street Strategies in Lansing. DiSano said these occurrences at political events are known as dirty tricks or political pranks.
“There are two types of political pranks you can pull,” said DiSano. “The first is just being obnoxious — just doing stuff to annoy your opponents. The second consists of the pranks that underline an issue or highlight a position of an opponent.”
“Clearly what happened in Grand Rapids today is an example of the latter,” DiSano said. “Amash was trying to speak to only his supporters and barring others from entering and that is a real problem for him.”
DiSano believes that had Amash asked for the media and the seniors to be allowed in, the organizers would have conceded and granted entrance, but he said that Amash clearly didn’t want either group to participate in the “Fireside Chat.”
“Amash didn’t want them there and that is why they were barred from the event, regardless of what he said. He is trying to keep his radical far right agenda separate from senior citizens who would question his recent vote to abolish medicare. I’m far more convinced that’s why they were not let in the room, he does not want to answer those questions.”
Here is video of security guards telling the reporters and seniors that they had to leave the premises. One of the guards tells the seniors that whoever called them told them that they had been throwing things at the organizers and that’s why they had to leave. The guard doesn’t seem to take those accusations seriously.
Tags: Justin Amash, Tea Party, transparency