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Was a rowdy Virginia healthcare reform forum AstroTurfed?

By Matthew Shaer / August 26, 2009

A constituent gestures at a town hall meeting on health care reform at the South Lakes High School gymnasium in Reston, Virginia, Aug. 25.

Molly Riley/Reuters

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What ... you expected civility?

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Even in a healthcare debate that has regularly descended into name-calling and screeching, the tenor of a forum staged Tuesday night in Reston, Va., must mark some sort of new low. The recipe for disaster was there from the start: a controversial issue. A big venue. The promise of television footage for the folks who could scream the loudest. The presence of Howard Dean, a doctor, supporter of the public healthcare option -- and a favorite punching bag for conservatives.

The only thing needed was a spark.

Dean was introduced by Democratic Representative Jim Moran, whose district, Virginia's 8th, encompasses Reston. "He's a great guy, he's a terrific person, we're honored to have him with us," Moran said of Dean. And with that, the fire was set. Loud, fervent howling drowned out Dean's first few words. Discussion? Impossible. So Dean stepped aside, and Moran grabbed the mic again. (Video below.)

"I'm sorry but I can't even hear the governor and I'm sitting next to him, which means that are hundreds of people in this gymnasium who can't hear him because of a handful of people," Moran said. "Now these people are not from the 8th district, and they really don't belong here, and I'm going to ask them to leave."

Focus on the penultimate clause: "They really don't belong here." Did Moran mean illegal immigrants? No. He meant that the people screaming the loudest probably weren't from the 8th district. He meant that people screaming the loudest were probably shipped in by outside organizers. He meant, in other words, that there was a whole lot of AstroTurfing going on.

Was he right?

Partly. Although plenty of folks weren't shipped in for the forum, a handful were -- and according to reports from the floor of the gymnasium, it may have been the latter party that was drowning out Dean. The Hill, for instance, notes that the Reston forum "was the last stop on a 10-city tour for Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist known for his extreme tactics."

Terry, who heads an anti-abortion group called Operation Rescue, apparently dressed himself in a white lab coat and pretended to stab a friend. And he brought along a group of supporters, who yelled and jeered at regular intervals through the event. Here's a piece from Salon on the forum:

It only got worse when, after a disruption, Moran said there were some people in attendance who don't live in his district, had come there only to disrupt the meeting, and would have to leave, eventually singling out Terry. As shouts of "baby killer" rang out, Moran said Terry needed to leave, but then reconsidered, offering him the chance to ask the first question as long as he ended his protest and kept the question short enough that other people would still have their chance. Terry didn't take the offer -- instead, he was led out by police as he loudly accused Dean of murdering babies.

At any rate, we probably should have seen the whole thing coming. As Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times wrote today, "Did anyone think that a highly publicized healthcare town hall within easy driving distance of Washington would not draw a massive display of AstroTurf?"

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