• Politics
  • Republican Party

‘I Think My Approach Is Better Now.’ Allow Ex-Republican Justin Amash to Reintroduce Himself

5 minute read

Michigan Rep. Justin Amash walked into a cramped coffee shop in Grand Rapids on Wednesday morning, shook voters’ hands and ordered a drink with a small mountain of whipped cream on it.

It was the start of a daylong tour of his district with a unique purpose: to reintroduce himself to his constituents as an Independent.

Amash, who has represented Michigan’s Third District since being swept into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010, announced on the Fourth of July that he was leaving the Republican Party, becoming the rare member of Congress to go his own way. In this first set of public events back home since, Amash—a small-government conservative known for bucking party leadership, explaining each vote on Facebook and his criticism of President Donald Trump—assured voters that despite the new “I” next to his name he would not be changing his approach to legislating.

“Last month, I became an Independent on Independence Day,” Amash said at one stop, drawing immediate applause. “I didn’t do it because of any one person. Some people like to put it on President Trump or some disagreements with him. But there’s been a problem in Congress with our two-party system for a long time.”

Amash, who helped found the Freedom Caucus before leaving it earlier this year after he came out in favor of impeaching Trump, said he believed that by becoming an independent he was expanding his reach. He railed against the party apparatus on both sides of the aisle, and warned against blindly taking cues from leadership.

While Amash’s recent call to impeach the President earned him national attention, it only came up substantively once in the course of the day-long itinerary that included five events in coffee shops and breweries. One Trump supporter challenged Amash on it, and accused him of being tougher on the President than on former President Barack Obama, which Amash disputed.

“We all can learn, we all can grow, and that’s part of what I’m trying to do here as a representative,” Amash told the man. “Frankly, I let Trump get away with some things that maybe I would not have let President Obama get away with, and I think my approach is better now. I think my attitude is better now than it was back then.” His comments were met with applause.

Amash never raised his position on impeachment on his own. Asked in an interview with TIME whether that was intentional, he said no. “Today I thought it was more important to talk about being independent and what it means,” he said.

The fact that the subject barely came up “also shows that it’s not the kind of deal-breaker for people that people think it is. It’s not like Republicans who disagree with me on impeachment think they won’t consider me for Congress anymore,” Amash told TIME. “There are people who might disagree with me on that but will still vote for me because that’s just one issue.”

The events weren’t without tension. In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings earlier this month, constituents frequently raised the question of gun laws, pressing Amash repeatedly on his strong pro-Second Amendment stance. In one exchange at a brewery in Caledonia, Mich., a voter told Amash she had been a student at Virginia Tech during the 2007 shooting, and an employee at Washington Navy Yard in 2013. “I’ve been to way too many funerals, and we need to do something about gun violence,” said Katherine Laskey, 33, of East Grand Rapids. (She clarified to TIME later that she was not in the buildings the shootings occurred in.)

At a stop in Grand Rapids, another woman, Roslyn Sullivan, stood on a chair in the back of the coffee shop and told Amash she had thought twice about attending his event because she was unsure whether it would be safe. “Every movie, every venue that I enter that is not my home,” Sullivan said, “my son and I play what-if. Do you see the exit? Let’s sit over there. Remember, drop to the ground, follow me, don’t grab my purse. We do this as American citizens daily, hourly, whenever we find ourselves now in public spaces.”

(“I do not,” a man grumbled in response.)

In both instances, Amash sought to reassure people that they were safe and didn’t need to worry about mass shootings in their day-to-day lives. He argued that there’s a risk of overreaction, invoking the U.S.’s response to 9/11 as an example. “It is not worth it to undermine our Constitutional system, to undermine our Second Amendment, undermine our protections,” Amash said. “The bigger risk is a government that gets out of control.”

He argued some of the proposals under discussion—like red flag laws and universal background checks—would not solve the problem of mass shootings. “Sometimes we pass laws because they make us feel good, but they didn’t do anything,” Amash said. “And I’m afraid that a lot of the proposals that we have now are the kind of things that would make us feel good but not actually resolve the problems.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Lissandra Villa/Grand Rapids, Mich. at lissandra.villa@time.com