Organized armies converge on healthcare town halls

Reform advocates are adapting to conservatives' tactics and aim to flood audiences to give Democrats cover from attacks.

Ric Dugan/ The Herald-Mail/ AP
Long lines of people wait to enter Kepler Theater for a health care forum hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin at Hagerstown Community College in Hagerstown, Md., on Wednesday.
Dawn Majors/ St. Louis Post-Dispatch/ AP
In this Aug. 6 photo, Dan Szyman, of St. Louis, an activist with Healthcare for America Now, shouts during a protest outside Bernard Middle School in Mehlville, Mo.

Two organized armies on the left and right are in a battle over healthcare reform that is turning on which side is seen as authentic – grass roots, not AstroTurf.

Both sides are scrambling to turn to their advantage the intensity of the turnout at public meetings with members of Congress during the past two weeks.

Screamers and booers swamped Sen. Ben Cardin’s town hall meeting in Hagerstown, Md., Wednesday. Most failed to get in the front door of the 450-seat theater, but those who did nearly drowned out what the first-term Democrat had to say for about an hour.

Judging by pins and signs, conservative protesters alerted by conservative talk radio and e-mails appeared to outnumber Obama supporters at least 5 to 1.

Yet in Kittanning, Pa., Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter got a more balanced reception. After a battering at a town hall on Tuesday, “20 of the first 30 questions,” Senator Specter faced Wednesday were from healthcare sympathizers, says Marc Stier, Pennsylvania state director of Health Care for America Now.

“We got there really early,” adds Mr. Stier, whose national coalition group is now the leading pro-reform organizer. On Tuesday, Stier acknowledges, most of his activists arrived too late to get a seat.

Before the town halls began, moderate Democrats from relatively conservative districts and states were loath to get too close to groups like Health Care for America Now (HCAN), fearing that opponents could tar them as liberals.

That is changing, Stier says: “Blue dogs [conservative Democrats] who were keeping HCAN at a distance, are now asking us to help get people to their events. They’re scared, and they want our help.”

There are some new names in the mix of activists organizing around healthcare reform – such as the Tea Party Patriots, Conservatives for Patients' Rights, and Patients First.

But the fault lines are not new. These conservative forces have faced off with liberal and trade union groups before on issues ranging from taxes to tort reform. Much of the debate centers around the size and cost of government, as well as the scope of its reach into business.

What is different is that the competing groups are not just wielding clout with lawmakers behind closed doors. This month, the fight over healthcare reform has been out in the open.

Polls may show opinion shifting against the healthcare reform proposals moving through Congress, but the public meetings have given giving a more human, and often angry face to the issue.

National umbrella groups are taking the lead in urging supporters to attend. The business-backed Americans for Prosperity, for example, is sponsoring two bus tours around the country on healthcare, and it provides a list of national town hall events for its activists.

“We’re finding a very strong emotion against this bill,” says Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. "We are constantly e-mailing and phoning our activists and urging them to turn out.”

Likewise, dates and times for congressional town halls on healthcare are also available on the Health Care for America Now website

Yet many of the town hall attendees bristle at the suggestion that they are AstroTurf – manufactured grass-roots rather than the real thing.

“We’re not AstroTurf. We’re not manufactured puppets of any sort,” says Barb Miller, a Tea Party activist who drove to the Cardin rally in Hagerstown from West Virginia after learning about the event from e-mail. “We are truly grass-roots Americans who are just concerned about the way our nation is headed.”

Jeff Merson, a meat cutter from nearby Mount Airy, Md., echoes her sentiments, saying: "There’s too much waste and the money isn’t going where it’s supposed to."

“Both sides are now in the game, liberal and conservative orgs,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It’s not left or right Astroturf.”

Stung by excesses reported at some town hall meetings, however, organizers on both sides of the issue are urging those attending events to be respectful and civil. Some say they’re beginning to see progress.

“Obviously, the appealing media story is the screaming, yelling, and the distractions, but at the same time there are a lot of constructive meetings going on around the country,” says Jacki Schechner, Health Care for America Now’s national spokesman.

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