I was at Representative Dave Loebsack's Cedar Rapids town hall meeting yesterday, so here are some of my observations and thoughts about it.
We arrived for the town hall meeting around half an hour early, and already there was a big crowd. By 9:30, people had filled every seat in the auditorium and more people were standing in the aisles. Over 500 people attended. An Organize for America worker was standing just outside the building handing out blue pro-reform signs with an Obama logo and inviting people to sign the healthcare reform petition.
Inside, the first real uproar – huge applause, but boos as well – erupted when a woman walked in, shortly before the program began, carrying a neon green poster with “Obama Lies Grandma Dies” handwritten on it. The Cedar Rapids Gazette writeup of the meeting identifies her as failed Linn County Republican State House candidate Emma Aquino-Nemecek. I can tell she's got a lot to contribute. I had underestimated the number of attendees opposing this healthcare reform legislation before the cheers for Nemecek – it's so hard to tell just by looking at people. Still, although the anti-reform crowd had a definite margin in shrillness, I'd guess the numbers were fairly evenly split.
Loebsack appeared promptly at 9:30 and after minimal introductory remarks on his love of town-hall meetings he opened the floor for questions. People submitted written questions on their way in, then questions for the town hall were randomly selected from these. The first speaker said she had come alone, and that she wasn't organized or recruited by anyone to come to this meeting. She didn't really have a question after that; she just wanted to say she's strongly opposed to government-run healthcare. The room erupted once again. In response, Loebsack's first point was that organizing and mobilizing are part of the democratic process, and there are groups sending out emails and organizing people on both sides of this issue, so it's okay if people didn't come alone. He then explained that having one public option is not the same as government-run healthcare.
Another speaker asked how to combat lies, especially now that one of Iowa's senators is talking about death panels. “Lies is a pretty tough word,” responded Loebsack. He said he wouldn't call Grassley a liar, but that Grassley is mischaracterizing this particular issue. Sarah Palin said death panels, but nothing in this legislation refers to death panels. The auditorium once again filled with yelling, both the angry shouting of the deathers and angry shouting of their opponents.
Another speaker asked Loebsack, “Can you define Socialism for us, and tell us if you think it's good or bad?” As usual, the audience responded with an uproar. Loebsack laughed, and reminded us he used to be a teacher and people could write books on this, but then defined Socialism as “government ownership of the means of production. In extraordinary circumstances,” Loebsack continued, “government has a role to play, but I don't want government to run the means of production in general. It's not American.” No, Dave Loebsack is not in favor of Socialism. I assume that question came from an opponent of healthcare reform, but the Socialism accusation is so asinine and Loebsack's response so easy and appropriate and basic, the whole exchange made a mockery of conservative talking points.
In all, seven speakers seemed more or less in favor of healthcare reform with a public option, and seven were opposed and many of these were very hostile. Loebsack handled himself well; he didn't seem flustered or overwhelmed at any point and he gave pretty thorough and respectful answers even to inane questions. I don't know how much was really accomplished. The majority of questions were leading and basic, and only one or two addressed any subtle details of the reform bill. Probably just about everyone in attendance was there because he has strong feelings one way or the other about healthcare reform with a public option; Loebsack did well and would have been convincing to an undecided person, but I wouldn't hold out hope that any were present. It was pretty dismaying to be surrounded by these hysterically angry and irrational and rude people, but I'm glad I went. The bullies go to town hall meetings intent only on being obnoxious and shutting them down, so normal people need to be there too, as voices and bodies of reason. I hope it helps something.