By Mike Soraghan - 08/26/09 12:14 AM EDT
Groups backing President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul filled the 2,700-seat gymnasium where Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) held his healthcare town hall with more than enough supporters to drown out a small but vocal minority of opponents.
Fueled by the presence of former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean, it served as a counterpoint to high-profile sessions dominated by red-faced opponents of the overhaul plan.
But it also opened the left to charges of hypocrisy from conservatives whose anger was dismissed as manufactured when it erupted in town halls earlier this month. The groups involved said they're just tapping into the support that exists for Obama's plan.
“We're just providing information," said Jason Bane, spokesman for Change that Works, which is backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). "A lot of people we talk to say, 'I'm already going.' "
Julia Roig of Herndon, Va., who had done "very little" canvassing for Obama during last year's campaign, was urged to attend by e-mail from Organizing for America (OFA), the heir to Obama's campaign organization.
"I've heard these town hall meetings have been rude and out of control," Roig said. "I wanted to lend my support to the side that supports healthcare reform. I'm here to show my presence, wave my sign and show that a good portion of Northern Virginia supports healthcare reform."
The blue and white OFA signs, reading "Standing Together for Health Insurance Reform," resembled Obama's campaign signs. Organizers also passed out handwritten signs scrawled out with Magic Marker to appear homemade.
Sondra Madison of Herndon had printed out an OFA sign at home, but she held up a handmade sign given to her as she walked in that said, "We want healthcare now."
The emotion surrounding the event was intense. People began showing up around 3 p.m. for the 7 p.m. event at South Lakes High School.
While supporters dominated inside the auditorium, opponents made a splash outside the high school gymnasium with street theater.
The Moran town hall was the last stop on a 10-city tour for Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist known for his extreme tactics.
Terry's colleagues put on a skit with a man in an Obama mask pretending to whip a bloodied woman, who kept saying, "Massa, don't hit me no more. I got the money to kill the babies."
Terry himself dressed in a doctor's lab coat and pretended to stab a woman in a gray wig.
"There's no way to pay for this thing without killing granny," Terry explained.
Nearby, two young men heckled supporters of the bill as they walked in. They waved signs, wearing large flags around their shoulders adorned by a large machine gun and the words, "Come and take it."
While guns have been carried legally inside and outside some recent town halls around the country, guns were banned at Moran's event because it was on school property.
Moran borrowed techniques that other lawmakers have adopted to calm the town halls, passing out "George Washington's rules of civility," inviting Boy Scouts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, trying to limit attendance to residents of his district, drawing pre-submitted questions from a box and starting with a prayer by a local rabbi.
But politics interrupted even before the prayer was over. Amid Genesis, the rabbi said, "Our healthcare system needs help," sparking boos from opponents, then cheers from supporters.
Though the crowd was overwhelmingly supportive of the plan, Moran used a loud amplifier to speak over near-constant heckling from opponents, generally ignoring them.
But when he introduced Dean, who's become a fiery supporter of the government-run "public option," the opponents erupted, and Moran told them to leave. Police escorted at least two men out of the session, including Terry, as the crowd chanted, "Kick him out."
One heckler who didn't get booted was David Hunter of Arlington, who stood on the gym floor in a suit and tie and shouted back at nearly every Moran statement.
"If I knew I could ask one question and get two minutes with the congressman, I wouldn't have shouted one bit," Hunter said. "I'm doing my best within my power to be heard."
Dean, whose 2004 Democratic presidential primary hopes were fatally damaged by his televised screech after the Iowa primaries, kicked off with some humor, saying, "The last time I was in front of a crowd this big, I was the one doing the screaming."
But Dean, who has made waves recently by saying healthcare should be scrapped if it doesn't include a public option and warning of primaries for Democrats who oppose it, didn't serve up much red meat. Instead, he gave short opening remarks and gave often technical answers to questions from the crowd. Dean, a physician, did say that the bill doesn't include tort reform because trial lawyers would oppose it.
"This bill has enough enemies," Dean said. "The people who wrote it did not want to take on the trial lawyers in addition to everyone else."
Moran was repeatedly asked by opponents if he was willing to be insured under the Democratic plan. He said he was, because he would keep the same insurance he gets now, which is the same as federal employees'. He said federal employees and most other people would keep their existing plan.
One of the toughest questions for Moran came from the left, when a woman asked if he would support Rep. Anthony Weiner's (D-N.Y.) floor amendment calling for the establishment of a fully government-run "single-payer" system.
"I don't know," said Moran, who has co-sponsored single-payer bills in the past. "It will depend on what it takes to get the bill out of the House. Now that the president has endorsed a bill, I'm inclined to support that bill."