Noisy Disbelief

Opponents Dominate Cardin Town Hall Meeting On Health Care

Senator Is Heckled Throughout Session

August 11, 2009|By Paul West and Julie Scharper | Paul West and Julie Scharper,paul.west@baltsun.com

They began arriving four hours early, ignoring triple-digit heat-index levels for a chance to hoot and holler at Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's health-care town hall meeting Monday night.

Outspoken opponents of the Democratic overhaul plan, which Cardin supports, vented their hostility at the first-term senator. In an echo of similar events around the country, most of those in the capacity crowd at Towson University were clearly hostile to the reform proposal and dismissive of Cardin's attempts to defend it.

"I know some of you don't want me to mention the facts, but listen to the facts," the senator said early on, drawing an angry response from opponents in the room and applause from supporters - who were both outshouted and outnumbered.

Profound disbelief was the dominant mood, and Cardin got heckled almost nonstop. The audience jeered his answers and broke into raucous cheers when their comrades confronted the senator with dismissive remarks about the federal government and the Obama administration's overhaul plan.

They laughed dismissively when Cardin cited the World Health Organization and tried to shout down his attempt to present an outline of the legislative proposals in Washington. "Filibuster!" shouted one man, after Cardin's presentation had eaten up almost a third of the 90-minute event.

"Listen, I know a lot of you have your minds made up," said Cardin, who often had to strain to make himself heard but kept his emotions in check.

Many in the crowd laughed uproariously when Cardin said illegal immigrants would not be entitled to coverage under the Democratic plan. And they jumped to their feet in one of the longest, loudest ovations of the night after an audience member asked why tort reform wasn't a feature of the health care overhaul.

Another questioner commended the senator for showing up to take questions. "I didn't think you had it in you," he said, before asking if Cardin would put himself under any public plan Congress creates. ("I'm in a public plan. It's called Medicare," the senator replied.)

For the better part of an hour, Cardin fielded a variety of queries. Very few could be characterized as friendly.

Security was unusually heavy. About 10 minutes after Cardin began speaking, university security officers marched through the audience and positioned themselves at the edge of the stage in a show of force.

The atmosphere inside was more than matched by the scene outside, as hundreds were turned away after the early arrivals claimed all 500 seats inside.

Activists by the hundreds lined both sides of the road, and all sides of the issue, honking horns, brandishing signs and shouting slogans for the benefit of the TV cameras and anyone who might listen.

"I guess we're going to rally and scream at each other," said Lynne Livingston, 46, a Baltimore court stenographer who came in response to an e-mail from the liberal group MoveOn.org. "It's ridiculous, but you can't just have one side control the whole discussion."

Sign-toting Obama supporters, mobilized by the activist arm of his campaign organization, jostled alongside conservative protesters carrying detailed if not always factually accurate critiques of Democratic health care legislation.

"I'm not a mob," said Anne Sunderland, 51, of Timonium, who works at an assisted living center, referring to the way the Democratic Party has described angry opponents of President Barack Obama's top legislative priority.

Her sign. "Obama Lies, Seniors Die," referred to a Democratic proposal that, critics say, would give the government control over the end of people's lives.

Echoing that fear, a hot topic in conservative circles, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and Bush administration appointee who arrived more than two hours early to nab a seat, wore a large hand-made button that warned: "Euthanasia."

Cardin tried to dispel that notion, putting it in the category of another anti-Obama issue that has caught fire on the right. "There would be nothing in a health overhaul plan about terminating people's care at the end of life," the senator said. "And by the way, President Obama is also a citizen of the United States."

The confrontation in Towson was only the latest in an escalating series of clashes over overhauling the health care system.

Opponents have turned out in force, in some cases sparking ugly scenes in which congressmen have been shouted down by their constituents. Democrats have accused critics of waging a deliberate campaign to block public debate.

House Democratic Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said the disruptions are part of an "un-American" effort to drown out opposing views about health care reform. "Drowning out the facts is how we failed at this task for decades," they wrote in an opinion piece in Monday's USA Today.

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