At the risk of offending some Kossacks, I'm reposting this diary from the weekend because I think it shows how health care town hall meetings can be done the RIGHT way!
Freshman Representative from MI-07 Mark Schauer had a grueling schedule Friday and Saturday last week. He held four town hall meetings in two days to discuss the House's health care reform bill and to answer questions from his constituents. Schauer, who narrowly defeated the odious fundamentalist über-conservative Tim Walberg in 2008, is in a tough district. While it contains a number of largish cities like Battle Creek and Jackson, it also has an enormous number of rural communities.
I attended the town hall in Jackson, Michigan and came away thoroughly impressed by how this new Congressman has matured as a legislator and as a spokesperson for progressive issues.
The town hall was also a very interesting exercise in watching anti-reform forces, "Tenthers" and hardcore supporters of a single-payer health care system all get into bed together.
I arrived an hour early to the venue and already there were 20+ cars in the lot. Once inside, the room quickly swelled to capacity with approximately 150 people in attendance. As I walked in, I met a friend from the Obama Campaign for Change last year. He was handing out an information sheet and as read through it after sitting down, was dismayed to find out that he was urging people to ask Rep. Schauer to vote AGAINST the health care bill when it comes back to the House. As a single-payer advocate, he feels the bill is not worthy of being passed.
In addition to Rep. Schauer, he had a panel of others at the front of the room to help answer questions. Erick Schneidewind, state president of the AARP, Erin Knott, Assistant Director of Michigan Citizen Action, and Renee Curtis, an ER nurse representating the United American Nurses Union.
Rep. Schauer gave a 10-15 minute Powerpoint presentation that covered the most important aspects of HR 3962.
Rep. Schauer gives a presentation on HR 3962
He then took questions from the audience. This was done in a random fashion. Everyone entering the room was given a name tag with a number and numbers were randomly drawn from a hat.
Based on the questions asked and the applause given, it appeared that the audience was about 1/3 anti-reform people and 2/3 pro-reform. As the questions came in, Rep. Schauer handled them with grace and aplomb. He's clearly very knowledgeable about the bill and was able to easily answer all the questions that came at him about it.
One anti-reformer, a woman, asked "Can you tell me what the section covered in pages 1169-1178 has to do with health care?" Amazingly, Rep. Schauer was able to tell her without referring to notes that this section is about home visits to "at risk" kids. The questioner clearly felt that this was not "health care" but Rep. Schauer said, "Well, we either pay now or pay later." In other words, following up on kids in at-risk situations can help prevent them from returning to the medical system later, saving costs and keeping them healthy.
Another questioner said, "I have two questions! First, why weren't these meetings listed on your website?!" It turns out that they were. In addition, they were announced in the newspapers throughout MI-07 and Rep. Schauer appeared on a radio show to announce them as well. The questioner went on to ask if the audience was stacked since Rep. Schauer knew so many of the question askers by name. "I know people by name because I spend so much time in Jackson!" was his reply. Indeed his state office is in Jackson.
Another woman got up to say she was from Canada and went on and on about how horrible things are there and how this was the worst possible thing we could be doing, etc. etc. When she said "It started out okay but then it started falling apart", strangely all of the anti-reform people stood up to cheer and clap. "Yay for Canada failing," I guess...
Rep. Schauer thanked her for her statement. "I'm glad you brought up the Canadian system," he chided her and then went on to say that he is against a single-payer system in general and that he's for improving the AMERICAN system we have now, not completely changing it.
In addition to the combative questions, there were many folks that stood up to thank him for his efforts as well as to ask about specific elements of the House bill. Again, Rep. Schauer came across as knowledgeable and informed. He said he had read the entire bill and it was clear that he had.
Afterwards, a minister at the church where the event was held got up to say a few closing words. His name is Russell Davis and in addition to his ministering duties, he's also the athletic director of Jackson High School as well as the principal of the 11th grade. He's best known for being a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Russell Davis and Rep. Mark Schauer
"I want to thank you all for participating," Davis told the crowd. "This was healthy what happened here today. I know I learned some things and I'm sure you did, too."
After the event, Rep. Schauer shook hands with folks and answered questions one-on-one. Although many of the folks were intent on giving him a hard time, he continued to answer their complaints with reasonable words and informed knowledge of the bill.
Rep. Schauer answers questions of an anti-reform constituent
So, back to my single-payer supporter friend.
Before the event got started, he approached me to ask how things were going. I told things were very busy. Skipping the chit chat, I pointed to his info sheets and said, "I certainly can't say I agree with what you've go there. I'm REALLY disappointed to see you handing that out. We've never been so close to passing a health care reform bill as we are now and, while I agree it's imperfect, it's a necessary first step."
We argued quietly for awhile, me holding my position that this was a good start toward comprehensive health care reform, him saying that it's not good enough, worse than nothing and, most importantly, that passing it would condemn Democrats in 2010 and 2012, something I completely disagreed with him on.
Then a guy came up to him and began to badger him with questions. It quickly became clear that he was a "Tenther", someone who believes the 10th Amendment will allow states to bow out of HCR efforts and who thinks that HCR is unconstitutional. As the two of them argued, I realized that politics does, indeed, make for strange bedfellows. Here we had two people at the most far opposite ends of the political spectrum trying to kill this legislation. Quite an interesting contrast and I was tempted to ask my friend how he felt about being on the same side of an issue as those he most disagrees with most of the time.
At any rate, the event was a huge success. Rep. Schauer's staff handled the crowd well. Prohibiting ALL signs kept the event from becoming a complete clown show. The random nature of the question-taking ensured that nobody could accuse them of cherry-picking. And, most importantly, Rep. Schauer's vast knowledge of the legislation allowed him to answer all the questions that came at him, whether they were hostile or not.
It's clear that his 10 months in office have already sharpened his skills when it comes to dealing with his constituents and I'm proud to see this promising progressive Democrat gaining confidence and becoming more and more effective as a political leader.
Well, done, Mark. Keep up the great work!
I'm just sayin'...
Cross-posted at Eclectablog.