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Aug 14 2009

The deathers get routed in Cleveland

On Wednesday evening, Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio’s congresswoman for District 11, held a town hall meeting for her constituents. These events, once staid and even boring exercises in democracy, have recently become notorious for the groups of vociferous opponents of health care reform who have stormed them, armed with a strategy formulated by the health care industry and its Republican Party allies to shut down meaningful discussion on this important issue, intimidate elected representatives, and give the impression that those who oppose reform are more numerous and care more deeply about their point of view than those who support reform efforts such as single-payer.

But at the Fudge event, they got their come-uppance, big time. Fudge not only represents a solidly Democratic district that spans the East side of Cleveland and some adjoining suburbs like Shaker Heights (where I live), it is also a very progressive one. Fudge is a strong single-payer supporter and one of the 86 co-sponsors of John Conyers’ House Resolution 676 that seeks to expand Medicare coverage for all. Fudge claimed in her remarks that our district is the most diverse in the nation. I am not sure how such things are measured and if she has data to support it, but from first hand experience living there, I see no reason to doubt it.

Since the event was held at the place I work (Case Western Reserve University) in an auditorium in the very building my own office is in, I got a ringside view of the events. My corner office overlooks the two main streets that intersect at my building and I could see the demonstrators with placards gathering on the sidewalks from about 4:00 pm for the 6:00pm meeting. It was clear that the pro-reform forces had mobilized because on the streets they clearly outnumbered the anti-reform forces.

When I entered the auditorium shortly before 6:00 pm, it was full to its capacity of about 500. The chair of the session got loud applause when he asked that all people be given a respectful hearing. The first 45 minutes consisted of introductions and various people being recognized, especially ten young community leaders, each of whom spoke briefly.

The shape of things to come became clear when one of the honorees spoke briefly. He was Zac Ponsky from the nonprofit group MedWish, a group that works to provide free health services to those who need it, both home and abroad. He said that we needed action on health reform now, and we needed to do it on a national level. He got generous applause but then there came some boos and this generated much louder applause to drown out the boos. It was clear that the anti-reform groups were in for a tough time with this crowd, who were prepared and ready to combat them.

When Fudge spoke at 6:45 she covered some general ground before she got to health reform and she said that we are definitely going to get it this year. This was met with loud cheers, before some boos were heard which again were responded to with louder cheers for Fudge. From the relative loudness of the two sides, I estimated that the pro-reform forces outnumbered the anti-reformers by about 10 to 1.

Soon after Fudge began her remarks, the anti-reform groups, which seemed to be in three different clusters in the auditorium, went into the mode that those of us who have been following these events are familiar with. They started yelling out their slogans (“Why the rush?” “This bill will kill old people”, “What about the cost?” etc.) and refusing to let Fudge speak, even though the crowd started yelling for them to keep quiet and let her go on. It was clear, though, that university security had prepared for this. An officer went up to two men yelling the loudest and spoke to them, presumably to ask them to stop preventing the speaker from continuing. When they did not, they were both force-marched out of the room. This seemed to deflate the protest groups and they quieted down. Later on, during the Q and A, when another man started yelling from his seat and interrupting Fudge’s answer to a question from a person in the line, the head of the campus police, a genial but firm man, went and spoke quietly to him and he subsided.

At the end of Fudge’s brief remarks, the anti-reform people knew the drill and quickly got in line for questions in greater percentage (about 50%) than their presence in the room (about 10%) warranted. This was actually a good thing since it enabled Fudge to challenge the misconceptions on which they work. Fudge was not at all rattled. She is sharp, articulate, personable, and quick-witted. She knew what to expect and was ready. The largely pro-reform audience listened quietly to the questions and comments of even those who opposed reform, except for a couple of questioners who refused to yield the microphone when they were done but started to harangue Fudge. At that point, officials took the microphone away from them and moved them aside to allow the next person up, to the cheers of the crowd.

As to the question “Why the rush?”, she said that we were actually too slow, that health reform has been talked about for 60 years, and that nothing had been done at all during the Bush years.

As to the question as to whether the reform bill will euthanize old people, she said, to loud applause and laughter, that anyone who would even think such a thing has real problems. She said that all of us, including her, have elderly relatives whom we love. Why would we want to kill them? She then explained clearly what the bill says about end-of-life issues, a far cry from the ‘death panels’ that exist in the fantasy world of Sarah Palin and the nutters. (“Sarah and the Nutters” would make a good name for a music group, don’t you think?).

Fudge was also challenged as to whether she had read the entire 1,000-page bill. When she said she had not, they was a triumphant “Aha!” sound from the protest groups, implying that this meant that she did not know what was in the bill that she was supporting. She then explained what should be obvious. No congressperson is going to read every line of every bill that they vote on. It is not humanly possible. That is why they have staffs to do that work and flag those things that she should focus her attention on.

The most moving moments during the Q and A came from two women who spoke about their personal situations. One was a middle-aged nurse who works three jobs but cannot get health insurance because of a family history of cancer, not for any reasons directly related to her. She has been turned down by 14 companies and had her coverage taken away by another two. Another woman spoke of her husband who fortunately gets free treatment from the (government run) VA that costs $43,000 per year, but she herself cannot afford to buy her own insurance and they are going to lose their home because of her health care costs. Both women pleaded for the adoption of an affordable public plan and they received warm and sympathetic applause.

Twice Fudge was asked why the single-payer option was off the table and she replied both times that it was because Obama had taken it off, which is true. But perhaps not wanting to sound too critical of the president, she qualified it the second time round by saying that in order to pass reform legislation, they needed some conservative Democratic and/or Republican votes and they felt that single-payer would not be able to get that support.

In summary, the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of health care reform with a public option, with a sizeable chunk pushing for single payer. The anti-reform groups were completely routed.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on boisterous town halls

I showed this yesterday, but it seems to fit today’s post better.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Healther Skelter
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