Compelled by her conviction that President Donald Trump must be impeached, Ariel Summers showed up last week at a congressional town hall meeting in Stillwater. “A lot of Democrats like myself are frustrated with the inaction,” said Summers, a bank employee who lives in St. Paul.
The escalating impeachment debate also brought out Trump supporter Tom Stephanie. “Ever since the first day Trump was in office, Democrats have wanted to impeach him,” the Maplewood retiree said, to hoots of support from some in the audience.
The meeting, hosted by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., was one of several around Minnesota recently as House members around the nation check in with voters on what could become the most decisive issue of the 2020 election. A daily torrent of revelations about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine, and later other countries, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden has inflamed a constitutional brawl that appears to follow a familiar political fault line.
“I know and can well imagine you’re here tonight out of concern over what’s becoming the biggest issue of our times,” McCollum told about 200 people sitting in an auditorium at Stillwater Area High School.
A 10-term Democrat from St. Paul, McCollum laid out a case for impeaching Trump. She walked the crowd through a PowerPoint presentation mounting a case that Trump actively and repeatedly promoted foreign interference in U.S. elections.
“I take no joy in this,” McCollum said. “It’s not what I came to Congress to do.”
McCollum’s Fourth Congressional District, centered on St. Paul, is strongly Democratic. But the outer suburbs around Stillwater are politically divided. The historic city on the St. Croix River is the seat of suburban and exurban Washington County, which broke slightly in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, an election result that closely mirrored that of the state as a whole.
“I think it’s unfortunate [impeachment] is consuming Congress right now,” said Mikki Murray, chairwoman of the Fourth Congressional District Republicans. Murray, who works in telecommunications, came to the town hall to tell McCollum she should spend time on more pressing issues.
“There’s certainly no lack of things to be done in Washington,” Murray said.
Republicans like U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, whose Sixth District runs just north of Stillwater, say Democrats will pay politically for backing impeachment. Emmer is hosting a town hall meeting Tuesday night in Blaine.
Before the public revelation of Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president urging him to investigate the Biden family, national polls showed little widespread support for impeachment.
A few more recent polls have shown some movement, which has made it easier for more moderate Democrats to join the impeachment push in the House. Polling analysts at FiveThirtyEight.com averaged national polls on the matter since Aug. 1 and found the breakdown as of Friday to be 46.5% in favor of impeachment and 44.8% opposed.
Trump’s campaign is targeting Minnesota for a pickup next year, and Democrats are poised to fight back hard, making it nearly certain the impeachment question and its ramifications will rattle the state’s politics in 2020. Trump is scheduled to hold a political rally at Target Center in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday night — his first re-election rally since the Ukraine story broke.
At McCollum’s town hall, opinions reflected the nation’s polarized politics. Summers, 29, said she’s been upset to see some Democrats “tread cautiously” on impeachment. She called the Ukraine allegations the party’s best opening to move quickly against Trump, whom she said “lacks dignity or any concern for anyone but himself.”
Stephanie, a 73-year-old retired state employee, said if impeachment is so important to Democrats, they should hold an immediate vote rather than stringing it out over weeks and months.
“You spent two years on Russian collusion and it was a total bust,” Stephanie said.
Interviews with a handful of other residents around Washington County found considerably less certainty. Several called the allegations against Trump unclear, or said they don’t trust the media to give them the full story, a reflection of the president’s persistent attacks on the press.
“How do we know if what we’re being told is true?” said Kaye Henry, 70, an independent insurance agent with an office in downtown Forest Lake.
Henry considers herself a Republican but didn’t vote for Trump. She praised his management of the economy, but said she’d prefer a different Republican candidate for president. She called Trump “a spoiled brat” and said she doesn’t like how he talks about immigrants.
Still, she’s not sure if he deserves to be impeached.
“Judge not lest ye be judged. I do have some empathy for him,” Henry said. “But then he starts talking, and gosh ...”
Keith White, a 59-year-old retired mail carrier, said he voted for Trump “begrudgingly.” Like Henry, he doesn’t care for Trump’s brash style.
“If he did things that require an impeachment, he deserves what he gets,” White said as he gabbed with the counter clerk at LiQuiVape in Forest Lake. But White said he hasn’t seen a case for impeachment yet. Making it harder to judge, he said, is that “it’s so hard to determine anymore what’s fake news and what’s real news. Anyone can put anything on the internet.”
Tim Mars voted for Trump and said he’s likely to again. The 39-year-old Forest Lake barber said he likes Trump’s political style and thinks Democrats “haven’t given him even one day to just go be the president. He has to face some new accusation every day.”
At Village Pine Custom Gunsmithing, in an industrial park north of Hugo, gunsmith Jesse Bloedow said he voted for Trump three years ago but probably won’t again. A libertarian, he’s not fond of any of the leading Democrats either. For now he’s just paying close attention to the impeachment skirmish.
“I don’t really think there’s enough evidence to do it,” said Bloedow, 28, who lives in Apple Valley. “The Democrats cried wolf so many times — how are you going to believe them now? And I think it’s a giant waste of time because the [Republican-led] Senate is not going to vote to take him out of office anyway.”
The shop where Bloedow works sells guns, but its main business is repairing, cleaning and customizing weapons. He said customers “tend to be more right than left, although you’d be surprised at the number of them who are more left. But what brings both sides together is pretty much blind hatred for the other side.”
Later that night, at the congressional town hall, the crowd leaned left. Expressions of support for impeachment drew bigger rounds of applause. As the hourlong meeting broke up, a young man sitting with a group of high school students in the back stood up and began shouting insults at McCollum.
McCollum did hand over the floor to a couple of anti-impeachment questioners during the meeting, but had ignored several others who loudly sought to be called on.
“Thank you for your comments,” McCollum said to Tom Stephanie after he spoke against impeachment. “I defend your right to say them, and I wholeheartedly disagree with them.”