Rowdy protesters overrun health care meetings
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009
(08-05) 20:25 PDT
-- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent her chamber home for the summer recess with a list of talking points to respond to constituents' questions about pending health care legislation.
But those traditionally sleepy town hall meetings have become rowdy shout-fests across the nation, including Northern California, with opponents hanging members in effigy and mocking them with Nazi and devil imagery in an effort to derail discussions of health care.
They're organized in part by conservative think tanks like FreedomWorks, which offers tips on how to disrupt a meeting ("Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early," says one) and helped in some cases by anti-tax "Tea Party" sympathizers.
More than 500 people packed a Napa town hall hosted this week by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, some shouting down panelists by yelling "This is America!" and "What's wrong with profit?"
Three Aug. 15 East Bay town halls scheduled by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, one of the health care legislation co-authors, are the targets of one Tea Party group calling for a "counterprotest."
A spokesman for Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., said this week he wouldn't be holding any town halls after his office received a death threat from a caller who said Miller "could lose his life over this."
The Democratic National Committee fought back Wednesday with an online ad calling the protesters "mobs" embittered by Republican losses last fall. A Republican National Committee spokesman said Democrats "have reduced the concerns and opinions of millions of Americans to 'manufactured' and have labeled them as 'angry extremists.' "
When asked if the protests represented grassroots opposition to health care legislation, Pelosi, D-San Francisco, told The Chronicle this week, "I think they're Astroturf" - artificial grassroots support.
"These are a few hundred people, the wingnuts, the far right extreme," said Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford University, fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of "Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America." "This is all sound and fury, designed to get the attention of the media, which it has been."
As for its effectiveness: "There are doubts out there among the American people" about health care legislation, Fiorina said. "And to the extent that they can get people to pause and say, 'Hmm. I wonder how I do feel about this,' they've succeeded."
While the Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates that $52 million has been spent on health care reform-related TV ads so far in 2009, others want to voice their opinion in person: Seventy-one percent of the respondents to a CNN poll said they were likely to attend a meeting where they could tell a member of Congress what they thought of health care.
Some believe that Obama's vaunted online and grassroots operation has been outgunned. "I don't think they were prepared for the opposition to come out to the local meetings like this," said Nancy Scola, an associate editor for TechPresident.com, a nonpartisan site that examines the intersection of media and politics. "They're being too genteel."
Town hall protests are nothing new. During her 1994 national road trip to promote health care reform, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was widely heckled - with comments ripping the Clinton administration policy on everything from gays to abortion, contributing to the program's defeat. And liberal organizations and labor groups massed online and in person to help derail the Bush administration's 2005 effort to overhaul Social Security.
The difference now is that these town hall protests take on greater significance when they are quickly posted afterward on YouTube and then picked up by the video-starved cable news channels. And there seems to be less interest in discussion than disruption, analysts said, which may start to backfire on conservatives.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the Napa Valley Register - which endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain for president last fall - opined, "The display (at Thompson's town hall Monday) was unwelcome - and unsuccessful if it was meant to move health care reform supporters toward considering the concerns of the critics. Several callers to the Register on Tuesday reported they were repulsed by the aggressive tactics of some members of the crowd."
In the 36 years that he's represented the East Bay in Congress, Stark said 30 to 50 people usually attend his town hall meetings - many of them familiar faces. He acknowledged that the protesters aren't doing anything illegal and that hearty discussion is part of democracy - until it prevents people from getting their questions answered.
"It's my sense that these disruptions are orchestrated by hired guns," Stark said Wednesday. "If it gets to be too much, we'll just hold class outside."
Visitors to a health care town hall scheduled for Aug. 29 in San Carlos by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, are invited to "bring a blanket or lawn chair for a relaxing discussion with Jackie."
"Maybe," quipped Speier spokesman Mike Larsen Wednesday, "we should take out the word 'relaxing.' "