WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to cancel a luncheon appearance before 2,500 county executives yesterday after hundreds of protesters burst through the doors of a hotel ballroom to decry changes in the school lunch program.
The well-orchestrated demonstration by ACORN, a grass-roots group that works for the poor and lower-wage workers, was the first major act of civil disobedience prompted by the Republicans' "Contract with America," and some observers said more could come.
Republicans "talk about the angry white men, but the whole doggone universe is angry because the haves are kicking the have-nots in the butt," said Paul Mayhue, a county commissioner from Grand Rapids, Mich.
In an interview on Capitol Hill, Mr. Gingrich said the demonstrators were "tragically misinformed" and called the xTC protest "a bizarre way to try to blackmail the taxpayers by emotion and noise."
Mr. Gingrich said the GOP has increased money for the lunch program, but opponents argue that the increases are less than originally budgeted and that some states could run out of money.
Mr. Gingrich missed the protest event because his airplane from Georgia arrived late at Washington National Airport.
The speaker was scheduled to address the National Association of Counties at 12:30 p.m. The protesters, who gathered out of sight behind of the hotel, didn't hear the announcement that he would be a half-hour late.
At the original speaking time, they suddenly filed through the lobby, overwhelmed a hotel security team barring the ballroom doors, and marched down the center aisle waving school lunch trays and chanting "The people's voices shall rise again."
Finally, a voice crackled through a hotel security radio with a belated warning that protesters were coming in "by the hundreds," prompting a cheer from the demonstrators, who represented 31 states.
Most of the startled county commissioners remained seated as hotel waiters delivered plates of chicken, potatoes and vegetables. The head table was abandoned when demonstrators overran it and took over the microphone.
"They are going to cut taxes on the right and then take food out of the mouths of children. We have to speak out," said Johnnie Pugh, a protester from Arkansas.
When it was announced that Mr. Gingrich had canceled his appearance, the protesters left. "You are not our target," one organizer said.
But not all of the county officials were so understanding. David Huffman, sheriff of Catawba County, N.C., said simply: "They're a bunch of deadbeats."