Maryland town hall nets one protester

GERMANTOWN, Md. — A healthcare forum hosted by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) attracted only a single protester outside a D.C.-area recreation center on Tuesday night — and fairly minimal opposition inside.

A capacity crowd of 300 people filled the Plum Gar Recreation Center to hear the first-term congresswoman speak for 30 minutes and then take 19 questions over another hour. But unlike other members of Congress who have held far more contentious forums this month, Edwards faced a far more supportive audience.

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Although the 19 questions were split almost evenly between those who supported reform and those who opposed it, heckling was fairly minimal and the audience was largely supportive, applauding enthusiastically and often shouting down critics. Many were students from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore — who came dressed in their white lab coats. One Montgomery County police officer staffing the event privately joked that the forum was “a love-fest.”

Edwards spoke in a basketball gymnasium, using a wireless microphone routed through a public-address system, and stood in front of a simple folding table beside an American flag. Ringing the room were signs that were universally supportive of reform. One typical poster read: “Public library, public road, public school, public transit, public parks. Public option — Not So Scary.”

The lone sign-hoisting protester at the door to Tuesday’s forum was Paul Mendez, 52, a self-employed writer-researcher from Silver Spring. Mendez was passing out fliers alleging the bill would fund healthcare to illegal immigrants. He said he believes Democrats who have pledged not to fund such healthcare are lying because the bill’s protections against it are so weak.

“There’s a lot in H.B. 3200 that I would support, but that’s a deal-breaker,” he said, referring to a House version of health reform.

In comments to the audience and afterward to reporters, Edwards said she supported Senate Democrats’ use of a controversial legislative tactic called reconciliation that could allow much of health reform to pass with a simple majority of 51 votes this fall, instead of the far more difficult 60. She also rejected the idea of an incremental approach, noting that she had signed a letter to Obama calling for a “robust” public option component to whatever legislation is ultimately passed.

“It’s hard for me to envision how this could achieve the goal of lowering costs and providing competition and accountability without a public option,” Edwards said. “Otherwise, we’re just tinkering with reform … The president has made every attempt he could to reach across the aisle. Now it’s time for Democrats to own and embrace this reform and just get it done.”

Questioners who said they opposed reform mostly cited its cost and the role of the government therein. In a typical comment, one middle-aged man said he didn’t believe government could be trusted to handle healthcare.

“As much as I want to trust my government and elected officials, I don’t,” he told Edwards. “Why should I trust you?

“We share competing views about the role of government,” Edwards answered. “There are some in this room who probably share the view, ‘No government, no way, in no thing.’ But there are others of us who share the view that government has a role and a responsibility in our lives … I am of the latter.”

Edwards started the forum with a series of personal stories, telling the audience that she once collapsed in a grocery store from an illness because she had no preventive healthcare, and that the resulting emergency room bills forced the foreclosure of her home.

The congresswoman also said her father died from kidney disease and needed end-of-life consultations with his family and physicians. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) created a firestorm of criticism last month by posting a note on her Facebook page that accused the Obama administration of intending to create “death panels” through such consultations. But Edwards said her own father benefited from the chance to discuss his options, adding that health reform critics have twisted the truth.

In one audience question typical of supporters, an American University student told Edwards that she supported a public-option plan because she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year after private insurers denied her a hospital visit that could have detected it earlier.

“How can anybody say that public health insurance would ration care, when private insurance has done that to me and is continuing to do that to me?” she said.

Edwards was asked pointedly by one questioner whether she would abandon the healthcare she currently receives as a federal employee and join a public-option plan if one were available.

During a lengthy answer punctuated by shouts of “Yes or no” and “Answer the question,” Edwards suggested she wouldn’t want to overburden a public plan, but that if the option were available, “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Edwards’s staffers said they mobilized supporters for Tuesday’s event through ads in local newspapers, fliers at district offices and notices to supportive constituents on an internal office list. E-mails also went out throughout the area from Organizing for America, the community action arm of the Democratic National Committee that was formed from the 13 million e-mail addresses in President Barack Obama’s campaign database last year. Although audience members were not restricted to members of Edwards’s district, most who spoke at a microphone stated they were from nearby towns.

A former community organizer herself, Edwards defeated incumbent Albert Wynn in 2008 to represent Maryland’s 4th district, a heavily Democratic black-majority northern D.C. suburb. Democrats constitute more than two-thirds of the district’s registered voters.