Member sees depth of healthcare emotions at events

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- While some Democratic lawmakers have canceled town hall meetings after their colleagues endured criticism from health-reform opponents, GOP Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.) has struggled to find a space large enough to accommodate the throngs of people showing up at his meetings.

With two public healthcare forums under his belt since returning home for recess, the lightning-rod issue has shaken up thousands of his constituents, many of whom were unable to fit in the venues booked months ago by his staff.

Spending a day with Lungren in the rural portion of his district southeast of Sacramento, it was apparent that cameras have not been able to fully capture the electric political current generated on both sides of the issue, palpable in the air at the local events.

“I knew there was something there [before recess] but didn’t realize how massive it was,” Lungren repeated all day Saturday following a town hall meeting he held that morning in the sleepy town of Jackson, Calif.

Lungren represents an ideologically diverse district that elected him with less than 50 percent of the vote; the president also beat GOP contender Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenate rivals gear up for debates McCain opponent releases new ad hitting his record Why is the election so close? Experts say it's all in your head MORE (Ariz.) with less than 50 percent of the vote as well.

The response from his constituents has been remarkable in terms of the volume of individuals galvanized to make their voices heard and to hear what their congressman has to say about the state of play in D.C.

Despite some pundits branding the protests at Democratic lawmakers' townhall meetings as fringe, manufactured publicity stunts, there is an undercurrent of genuine concern beyond the Beltway that is seen in the number of individuals and small groupings of locals showing up at the events.

“This is unlike anything I’ve seen,” Lungren told The Hill on Saturday as the 25-year veteran state and federal lawmaker's car pulled up to the town hall meeting. “It’s not organized, it’s spontaneous; it’s an extraordinary outpouring such as I have never seen before.”

Nearly 500 people turned out to partake in the forum but only 250 were able to fit in the standing-room-only civic center.

Those who couldn’t sit in the room stood outside, or in the kitchen area off of the main hall or under the arbors surrounding the building attached to the county police department.

Agitated locals on both sides of the hot-button issue had equal time to ask questions, but it was evident that more than half of those in attendance opposed the Democratic-sponsored healthcare overhaul.

Lungren, considered a vulnerable Republican in 2010, is an ardent opponent of Obama’s healthcare plan and was pressed several times early on about his position.

Many in the room scowled when their neighbor Dr. Robert Hartman – an internist and Amador County public health officer – spent five minutes reading a Letterman-style top-10 list that began “No. 10: The status quo is unacceptable … whatever plan we come up with has to be revenue neutral” and culminated in “No. 1: A public option is necessary.”

The sprinkling of attendees holding glossy blue posters provided by the AFL-CIO that read "Health Care Can't Wait" in lime green lettering applauded Hartman's sentiments, to which Lungren responded that several points in the doctor's list were contradictory.

“Point No. 10 and point No. 1 are in absolute conflict; the public option program as presented in the bill has been scored by CBO as a minimum of $1.2 trillion … even with all of the additional taxes presented in this bill. It is not revenue neutral; the largest expenditure in this program is the public option, the idea that the public option creates competition – I respectfully disagree,” Lungren responded, evoking loud cheers from a majority of the room as several homemade posters with hand-written phrases were waved in the air.

Following his nearly hour-and-a-half exchange with those inside the civic center, Lungren took questions from those individuals who weren’t able to make it into the room for lack of physical space.

The GOP lawmaker spent an additional half hour speaking to a crowd of 100, using a police cruiser megaphone as a microphone.

Those gathered around Lungren, who stood under an open back door of a Jackson County police Dodge Durango, were respectful of each other as well as of the eight-term congressman, four years into his second stint as a representative. He served in the House for five terms between 1979-89.

Proponents of Obama's healthcare plan said they wanted to participate in the event and not alienate.

“We came here not wanting to be confrontational and just really trying to be respectful of listening to everybody’s ideas,” said Sharon Romano, member of the Calavaras Democratic central committee.

But Lungren, battle-tested after enduring four years of hateful “facial gestures and threats of physical violence” by anti-Bush administration and anti-war demonstrators at town hall meetings, said he was ready for confrontation.

Though individuals at his healthcare town halls have been passionate, outspoken and full of conviction, Lungren says that they have been civil – unlike those in the past.

This week he will hold his third town hall meeting since the House adjourned for recess, and based on the interest in his past two meetings -- more than 1,000 people attempted to attend his first meeting but there was only space for 350 in the room – Lungren is making every effort to accommodate all who want to participate.  

Though the space in Rancho Cordova, a Sacramento suburb, can hold several hundred in the main room where he will be located, the venue is taking steps to provide greater access to the discussion, including setting up an overflow room as well as providing loudspeakers and monitors in the outlying areas.

Lungren says he's looking forward to it.