Thursday, March 24, 2011

Congressman Benishek meets, greets Keweenaw constituents; awesomeness ensues

First District U.S. Congressman Dan Benishek greets constituents at a "Meet and Greet" event in the Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton on March 22, 2011. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photos © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik. Reprinted with permission.)

By Jeremy S. Sandrik*

"Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon," said the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in an interview with the Atlantic in August, 1997. That said, on Tuesday, March 22, 2011, Congressman Dan Benishek made an appearance at Keweenaw Brewing Company to meet and greet his constituents, the good people of the Houghton/Keweenaw region.

For twenty minutes or so before the event began, the microbrewery began to fill with a mix of lizards in suits, University big wigs, hippies and freaks from both bygone and burgeoning eras, artists, teachers, students, union leaders, trapeze swingers, the works. At 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, there were far too many people downing pints of strong beer for the illusion of calm and decorum to last long. The mood in the room was electric, anticipatory. Nobody knew what we’d be looking at when the Congressman entered the bar. Would there be a formal address followed by questions? Would everybody crowd around a table and have a civil discussion? Would the room collapse into an anarchic fury with indistinguishable layers of voices, sour expressions, and vehement finger pointing? As the story unfolds, consider that I was furiously photographing the Congressman’s encounters, during which time my ears became largely useless as my focus turned to capturing images. I leave it to the objective journalists to provide thorough direct quotations to softball questions. Besides, for me this event was more about the real guests of honor, the people of the Copper Country community.

Congressman Benishek chats with constituents during his "Meet and Greet" event on March 22 at the Keweenaw Brewing Company in Houghton. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

As it was, Congressman Benishek entered KBC, closely followed by a young handler as he began working his way down the bar, stopping to glad-hand and briefly speak one-on-one with the people bellied up to the bar. I don’t think the man made it three handshakes in before meeting fiery opposition from Barbara Simila of Copper City, who grilled him liberally and viscerally regarding K-12 education defunding.

Barbara Simila, retired Calumet teacher, chats with Ann Pace of Hancock during Congressman Benishek's visit to Houghton. Simila questioned Benishek extensively about funding cuts in education and other social programs affecting children such as Head Start and WIC (the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program to help low-income mothers provide healthy food for their children). (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Rattled, Benishek moved on and reintroduced himself to someone he thought was an old, familiar face: local long-haired freak Ray Molzon. There was an awkward moment when Ray informed the Congressman that they had indeed never met.

Ray Molzon, Michigan Tech graduate student in mathematics, was among the crowd that welcomed Congressman Benishek at the Keweenaw Brewing Company on March 22, 2011. At right is Stephanie Trevino, artist and photographer. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Hope loomed immediately to stage right as the Congressman spotted formal suits and Michigan Tech apparel occupied by MTU’s Dean of the Graduate School Jacqueline Huntoon and Director of Graduate Marketing and Advancement Jacque Smith. Here the Gentleman from Michigan seemed to find himself at home in a conversation characterized by measured tones and polite smiles.

Congressman Benishek chats with Jacqueline Huntoon, Michigan Tech Graduate School dean, during the March 22 Meet and Greet event in Houghton's Keweenaw Brewing Company. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Needless to say, I was bored out of my gourd and kibitzed with Ray and my lady, the lovely local photographer and artist Stephanie Trevino. Over her shoulder I spotted my buddy Evan, who had the look of a man deep in thought.

Stephanie Trevino, artist and photographer, is also a student in Finlandia University's International School of Art and Design. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Evan spoke to Ray and me about the shock doctrine being practiced in Wisconsin, Michigan, other states, and within the Federal Government. It’s a neat trick. All you have to do is create a budget crisis by slashing taxes on business and the rich, then exploit the resulting budget shortfall to eliminate political opposition and programs designed to help the poor and middle class. At the end of the day you can sleep at night by dropping a deceptive throw-away line about the shared sacrifice. Its brilliance in execution is rivaled only by the transparency of its hypocrisy. That sucking sound you hear is a testament to the efficiency of the inverted economic funnel, moving wealth from the lowest earners of society to the top 1 percent. The government gets to brag about the balanced budget while reciprocating the campaign contributions of millionaires and billionaires in the form of tax cuts and corporate subsidies. Naomi Klein (naomiklein.org) wrote about these ideas in her number-one international bestseller, Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and has been featured in interviews on the topic on MSNBC (msnbc.com) and Democracy Now! (democracynow.org).

Evan and I decided the Congressman could use a pint and we treated him to a Pick Axe Blonde Ale. Dr. Benishek was seen mixing it up over Social Security with Clarence McDonald, former chair of the Houghton County Democrats and UAW (United Auto Workers) chair for the Western U.P. Some wonderful people were meandering the bar serving gooey brownies and carrot cake.

Congressman Benishek chats with Clarence McDonald, former chair of the Houghton County Democrats and UAW retiree (background), while an anonymous host serves carrot cake to, from left, Ann Pace and John Slivon of Hancock and Barbara Simila of Copper City. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

The beer flowed; vigorous conversation built to a pleasant hum as Congressman Benishek called the room to attention for an address.

Congressman Benishek, right, addresses the crowd about the deficit and the need for a balanced budget. His aide, Kyle Bonini, center in dark suit, looks on. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

The canned speech began as you might expect, with the boilerplate talking points regarding trillion-dollar deficits inherited by this Congress from both Bush and Obama administrations. There are difficult choices to be made, and he repeated his overused talking point relating the fact that everybody that comes to his office wants to cut spending in someone else’s program. Some ruckus began with a few murmurs from the crowd at about the one-minute mark . . . something mumbled under the breath here, then there.

The crowd has mixed reactions to Benishek's prepared speech. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Soon enough, Evan seized a lull in the conversation and launched into what I’d describe as a show-stealing, fact-packed, relentless, beautiful oratory. Even the breathing seemed choreographed not to allow any interruption until he’d finished his point, which revolved around the previously mentioned shock doctrine and Benishek’s support of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor while giving the rich a break. A suited gentleman in front of me suggested to Evan that the crowd was gathered to hear the Congressman speak, to which a woman nearby replied, "No, I think he’s doing fine."

This sort of spontaneous room-wide conversation continued to the point where there was no longer a Congressman addressing his constituents, but constituents hashing it out with each other, occasionally throwing it back to Dr. Benishek for his two cents. Benishek made the error of referring to Social Security as an entitlement, to which Barb Simila quipped, "How dare you call Social Security an entitlement? I paid into that for more than thirty years!" He was hurling undercooked spaghetti at the walls and nothing stuck.

Barbara Simila, center with hands raised, retired teacher from Copper City, sets off a discussion on Social Security during Congressman Benishek's address to the crowd. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Benishek stated he wanted to make Social Security solvent. "How?" erupted from behind my camera lens, just below my nose. I peered around the room and there was fire in the eyes of the citizens in that room. Smoke billowed from their ears. woman standing close to the Congressman extended her tongue in disgust.

A woman's nonverbal communication, right, expresses a negative reaction to Congressman Benishek's speech. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

Dave Rulison made a particularly poignant point when he said, "Some of this money to get us out of this debt should be coming from the top, wealthiest people, but if our leaders would lead by example -- if our governors, if our elected officials that are telling us we have to do all these things to balance the budget would step forward and, say, take a pay cut -- or offer something in return that would help the economy themselves, then I think more and more people would get behind them on these ideas that they're putting forward."

Benishek replied, "We cut our budget 5 percent."

Clarence McDonald suggested, "How about 50?"

Clarence McDonald, right, former chair of the Houghton County Democrats and UAW (United Auto Workers) chair for the Western U.P., joins the discussion on Social Security. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

"Teachers are taking a 12 percent cut," came from an unknown voice. The noise in the room at this point was palpable, and tying words to faces became a challenge. There was certainly a feeling in the air that what we’re witnessing in this country is far from shared sacrifice.

Shortly following this exchange, one of Benishek’s supporters in the rear spoke up and praised the Congressman’s hard work on behalf of all of us in the First District. The statement was followed by tepid applause from the previously overwhelmingly silent supporters in the crowd. Benishek spoke to a few more small groups of people before stealing away for a one-on-one interview. Among the exchanges was a conversation with Dr. Sarah Green, Michigan Tech Department of Chemistry chair. I’d missed the opening salvos of the discussion, but I clearly caught Dr. Green ask, "Well, may I educate you?" Afterward I learned the education pertained to the reality of climate change and Benishek’s denial of said reality. During this exchange the aforementioned aide seemed to be attempting to pull the Congressman from a losing battle of intellect and helping him hold his proverbial pants up.

Sarah Green, Michigan Tech Department of Chemistry chair, who has done extensive research on climate change, offers to "educate" Congressman Benishek by sending him information on the subject. (Photo © 2011 and courtesy Jeremy S. Sandrik)

I came away from this event not feeling any opposition had changed the Congressman’s mind, certainly no more so than his arguments had changed mine. The key to these events in my mind is to mobilize neighbors to share ideas and dreams, to build new connections and strengthen existing ones. The highlight for me was sharing beers with new friends Ann Pace and John Slivon, who encouraged me to consider a career in opera. I talked teacher shop with Barb Simila, and met one of her former students, Zach Bromley, with whom I made tentative canoeing plans. There were heartfelt conversations and connections made that will endure. The Invisible Committee wrote in their manifesto The Coming Insurrection, "We’re counting on what is unconditional about blood connections to make the framework for a political solidarity as impenetrable to state interference as a gypsy encampment." I feel that work is beginning for me and am grateful to those that have been building that framework here for decades and longer in the Keweenaw. It’s good to be home.

*Editor's Notes: Guest writer and photographer Jeremy S. Sandrik is a Copper Country resident.

The opinions expressed in our guest articles are not necessarily or not entirely the views of Keweenaw Now.

4 comments:

Kate said...

Great descriptions and photos! Made me feel like I was there.

Jeremy said...

Thanks much! Great talk tonight, if this is the Kate I think it is.

Becky said...

How did you determine that it was carrot cake?

Attitude said...

Wonderful post, Jeremy! I finally got around to reading it. In addition to the prose, the photos you shared of the event are thrilling eye prizes.