Hoyer gets earful at volatile town hall

WALDORF, Md. — House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ran into a tough crowd Tuesday night, as hundreds opposed to Democratic healthcare proposals booed, jeered and screamed at their congressman and one other.

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Fifteen hundred people — the limit set by local authorities — filled the gymnasium of North Point High School during Hoyer’s first healthcare town hall meeting of the recess.

The crowd appeared divided between those supportive of Hoyer’s push for a health insurance overhaul and those ready to loudly voice their opposition.

The result was a volatile mix of anxious and edgy people, most of whom waited in line for up to three hours to enter the school after waiting a month for a chance to speak to their congressman.

Nerves were quickly worn raw after introductory remarks from the moderator, a 25-minute speech by Hoyer and individual introductions and remarks from five additional panelists that took up a total of 45 minutes.

Hoyer entered to a thunderous mix of applause and boos as competing interests fought to make their voices heard the loudest.

The crowd remained in relative order during Hoyer’s remarks, interrupting on only a few occasions with various boos and cheers in response to hot-button phrases such as “end of life care,” “illegal immigrants” and “public option.”

But, at the conclusion of Hoyer’s planned speech, when five panelists were introduced and asked to give their own remarks, the crowd turned on its congressman, erupting angrily at having to continue to wait for their chance to ask questions.

“We don’t want to hear this!,” a man’s voice rose above the crowd. “Get to the questions!”

A chant of “We want questions! We want questions!” soon broke out, despite pleas from the moderator to set a better example for the children in attendance.

Hoyer aides soon began scurrying about as, at a few points, it seemed like the organizers were about to lose control.

A brief scuffle in the rear of the gymnasium sent sheriff's deputies running up the bleachers to escort at least one person from the gymnasium.

As a trickle of people started to leave in apparent disgust, a woman in the front row began shouting back at the rowdy audience, calling them disrespectful.

The remarks of a small-business owner who addressed the crowd might as well have been elevator music as the crowd grew even more restless, and the catcalls grew louder, more frequent, and more colorful.

“Too much bulls--,” a man huffed while storming out.

The last two panelists abandoned plans to speak and question tickets were drawn randomly from a lottery.

More questions with supportive prefaces were asked than questions slanted against the leading healthcare reform bills, but the overwhelming majority of opinion-based inquiries only further incited the crowd.

April Burke, a constituent of Hoyer’s from Mechanicsville, Md., who drew the first question, recounted how her two children recently lost their jobs and health insurance. She asked why the federal government should provide healthcare when her state health insurance is adequate.

Saying the Democratic plan would prevent the exact situation Burke’s family is now facing, Hoyer said, “I really think this plan would give you, your son and your daughter more confidence.”

“No, sir, it really doesn’t,” Burke replied. “We want the government out of our business right now.”

Burke’s response drew a boisterous standing ovation similar to scenes at town halls across the country that have been shown on cable news broadcasts.

“I know many of you are mad because you think Congress or the president or someone wants to take over your healthcare,” Hoyer said. “But the status quo won’t work for us.”

Audience members voicing support for Hoyer struggled to outshout those most viscerally opposed to seemingly anything with the stamp of the Democratic Party on it.

“A woman earlier asked who’s going to keep the health insurance companies honest. I’m concerned who’s going to keep the government honest,” an unidentified man asked Hoyer, prompting a roar from the crowd fit for a championship basketball game, as people in the packed bleacher seats stomped their feet, amplifying the noise.

As time wore on, nothing Hoyer could say could calm the crowd.

After a few questions about the cost of the healthcare overhaul, Hoyer repeated emphatically his pledge not to vote for a healthcare bill that wasn’t paid for, a statement that only drew a mix of boos and laughter.

Hoyer’s last town hall meeting, also on healthcare, was in April and drew 250 people, only a few of whom were worked up about anything, his staff said.

Early in August, Hoyer was confronted by the Republican-aligned “Tea Party” protesters during a speech at a New York town hall hosted by Rep. Michael Arcuri (D).

Tuesday night was supposed to be smoother. For one, Hoyer was back on his home turf, albeit in a traditionally conservative area of the state. For another, the significant anger of so many Americans seemed to be subsiding somewhat, as rowdy town halls had given way to meetings that were simply uncomfortable for Democrats.

On top of that, the Maryland chapter of Health Care for America Now, had counted on filling 1,300 of the 1,500 seats with health reform supporters. Matthew Weinstein, the Maryland chapter director, said before the meeting began that he estimated a thousand supporters had showed up.

“Back in the beginning of the month, the opposition was really outnumbering us,” Weinstein said. “That inspired the backlash from the silent majority of Americans who’ve been for healthcare all along.”

After the meeting, he insisted the majority supporting healthcare outnumbered those opposed to reform.

“This is about what I expected,” Weinstein said as the meeting wrapped up shortly after 9 p.m. “The opponents are a very vocal minority.”