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New Mexico Senator Jeff Bingaman, one of the three Democrats on the Senate Finance "Gang of 6", held a town hall in Albuquerque this afternoon.

It was a model of how a town hall should work in a democracy. There were a number of highlights. More about these, and how this model town hall was accomplished, below the fold. Two points in the intro: This was open to anyone who signed up, but it was highly organized by non-partisan moderators. And Albuquerque is a decidedly mixed bag politically. We elected our first Democratic Congressman ever in 2008.

There was a single highlight moment of this town hall that eclipsed all the others. An absolutely perfect moment.

After an hour and a half of questions and answers, the opportunity to ask a question came back to Group 1 -- the group I was assigned to. We'd been huddling. We knew we'd get one last shot at a question, a question that came after Senator Bingaman's patient explanations of the various reform proposals being discussed in Congress, including a detailed accounting of the public option, how it would work, what it is and what it is not. Bingaman said repeatedly, in his low key way, that he strongly preferred that there be a public option.

So, the Senator set the table for our highlight moment. The remaining questions we'd carefully prepared and agreed upon had all been asked by other groups. Several of us whispered, wouldn't it be interesting to get a vote from the 200 participants on the public option, after such a thorough discussion? We wordsmithed the question. Our moderator wasn't sure -- we hadn't approved this as a group. So, we polled the table. It was thumbs up, even from our thoughtful skeptic.

We got our turn. The gentleman who asked the question for us was very clear: "Senator Bingaman, would you be willing to ask for a show of hands in this room of those who support a ROBUST public option, available IMMEDIATELY?"

Our senior senator didn't bat an eyelash. "Sure, he said." He repeated the question, and asked for a show of hands.

Up to this point, there had been a sense that this crowd was pretty supportive of true reform, but a number of the questions had been direct and pointed, and after all, it was a completely open group. None of us knew for sure how this would go.

Let me hold you in suspense a bit longer to tell you a little bit about how this town all was organized. (No cheating!) It was organized by New Mexico First. Here's how this citizen organization describes itself:

New Mexico First is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings together people from all walks of life to identify practical solutions to the state’s toughest problems. In the organization’s 23-year history, it has engaged over 6,000 people in the democratic process through deliberation.

Co-founded in 1986 by U.S. Senators Pete Domenici (R-NM) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), the organization extends the title of “honorary co-chair” to New Mexico’s current U.S. Senators. The organization benefits from a large, bi-partisan board of directors.

We all registered ahead of time, online. It was made very clear that was to be a true town hall, open to all, but only people who were interested in discussion and debate were welcome. This was one town hall that wasn't going to be hijacked.

We all showed up just over 2 hours before the Senator was due to be there. We were each randomly assigned to one of 10 groups, and each had a moderator who was trained by New Mexico First, and a recorder. We all introduced ourselves in turn in our group. Then we were asked to brainstorm general topics for questions. Then we each placed colored dots on our 4 top choices of topics. And then, as a group, we reached consensus on the best wording for each question, and selected a group member who would ask each question. And, we then reached consensus on an advocacy statement -- one we could all agree upon. The recorder sent this all to the event moderator via computer link.

We then gathered in the ballroom, and sat with our groups. Bingaman gave a short introductory summary of where things stood with health care reform. Then the advocacy statements from each group. Only about half the groups could agree on one. Most were remarkably progressive: Health care is a right. No more recission by insurance companies. No gender disparity in coverage and costs. Mental health parity. One group even was able to agree on saying we needed a public option.

Then came the questions. They were remarkably well considered and thoughtful, and ran the full gamut, including several on single payer. He discussed Senator Conrad's co-op idea. Bingaman clearly regards this as a much less acceptable alternative, but holds out the possibility that it might work to improve access and choice and reduce costs if it was done right.

But Bingaman said repeatedly that he favored the public option, and left no doubt about this. But he's skeptical that there are 60 votes for this. Fortunately, our group was prepared for this -- we asked if he'd support going the reconciliation route if there was no other way to get past "bipartisan" stonewalling or if there weren't 60 votes for true reform. "Yes", Bingaman said. It was an unhappy yes, because he had reservations about resorting to this. But -- a clear and unmistakable YES on using reconciliation if necessary.

That was the second most important moment of the afternoon, I thought.

So, the show of hands on "Who supports a robust public option available immediately?"

Easily 90+% of the participants raised their hands! No kidding. He then asked who opposed a public option. Less than 10% of the participants raised their hands.

Now, there was no way of getting a precise count. I wasn't fast enough with my iPhone. The local news at 6:00 (KOB) chose to interview a teabagger who was protesting outside. They didn't show the obvious highlight, the show of hands, and didn't mention it. I think I'm being conservative in my count estimate. I'll keep looking and post a video if I can find one. (VIDEO NOW BELOW IN THE UPDATES that DOES show the participants raising their hands.)

I left feeling astonished and more hopeful than I've been in weeks. We showed that it's possible to have a true town hall that is civil, respectful and constructive, and gives every single participant an opportunity to be heard and have input.

And we demonstrated that when those who are bent only on disruption and displaying incoherent anger don't show up because it was clear that they would not be welcome, we had the chance to show, absolutely and unequivocally, to one of the most important and powerful Senators helping to shape health care reform, in our very politically diverse community, the depth and extent of the support for a robust public option, available immediately.

Senator Bingaman could not possibly have escaped the message. And it's a message we need to keep repeating, to everyone who will listen.

- - - - - - -

Update: Thanks much for the Recs. I was thrilled to have been able to be there and to write this, and to see this town hall get the exposure it deserves. I'm right now watching the full video of this provided by the New Mexico Independent (with a video feed provided by the local public TV station KNME). Thanks much to the comment by omgitsparishilton providing the link to this. It's a bit hard to scroll the video, and I'm still working on finding exactly where in the video the show-of-hands vote happened. I'll update this just as soon as I find it.

Update 2: The question about reconciliation and Bingaman's answer starts at 1:01:25 in the video. Note that his answer got a good round of applause.

Update 3: The question asking for the show of hands of those in support of a robust public option available immediately happens at 1:04:30 in the video. And Scarce has now embedded just this segment in his comment below -- THANKS!

The audience was not panned by the video camera. But even without this, the video captures Bingaman's somewhat surprised observation about the number opposed: "Very few ooposed. OK! That was easy!"

Well, not so easy -- it took the town hall process a while to get to this very important moment. But it's clear that the Senator was impressed.

I was asked to promote the video clip up here, so here it is:

Now, let's repeat this everywhere!!!!

- - - - - - -

Update 4 BREAKING!!!!!!! KRQE just reported on this town hall on the 10:00 evening news, lead story:

"... and a show of hands on the public option showed about 90% in favor"!!!!

Video not up yet online. They did interview a disgruntled protester complaining that this clearly was rigged. But then, they interviewed a number of attendees who said absolutely not -- this truly was representative, and open to everyone. Hopefully, we'll have the video of the KRQE newscast soon.

Update 5: I just spoke with the folks at KRQE (it's 7:52 am MDT Tue morning), and they promise the video of this newscast will be up within the hour. I'll post it as soon as I see it.

OK -- JUST UP!!! Here's the excellent KRQE newscast from yesterday evening that included their reporting of the 90% vote, and it DOES SHOW VIDEO OF PEOPLE RAISING THEIR HANDS TO SUPPORT THE PUBLIC OPTION (at 1:43 in the video):

I told KRQE that they provided by far the best coverage of this, and they were very pleased. I'm sure they'd be thrilled to receive other comments.

- - - - - -

Update 6: The Albuquerque Journal coverage this morning was, as usual, relatively weak. The article didn't even merit being placed in the first section, being relegated instead to the third section on "Metro & NM". They chose to highlight the reconciliation answer, which was fine -- I did think this was the second most newsworthy item from the town hall, and they correctly mentioned that "the remark drew loud applause". Here's how they described the show-of-hands moment, which at least they acknowledged, albeit somewhat buried at the end of the reconciliation paragraph, halfway through the article: "A show of hands revealed that a large majority of the audience supported a public option." Well, fair enough for the Journal. (To read the article from the link above, in the likely event you're not a subscriber, you'll need to agree to a one-time "trial" access, and watch an ad.)

- - - - - -

One last update 7: There is a newly posted, excellent diary by mindoca, Netroots for Healthcare Rally Report: 11 Days to Go! that I strongly recommend. This group is doing a great job in helping to organize and promote netroots support for real health system reform. This is the way to keep the momentum going! Please visit and rec the diary, and more importantly, get involved. Yes we can have a robust public option, available immediately!

Originally posted to flitedocnm on Mon Aug 24, 2009 at 06:17 PM PDT.

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