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NOT YOUR GRANDFATHER’S TOWN HALL MEETING

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As submitted to the Huffington Post 08/18/09

“I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord
I’ve been waiting for this moment, all my life, oh lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord

 Well, I was there and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off the grin, I know where you’ve been
Its all been a pack of lies

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord
I’ve been waiting for this moment, all my life, oh lord
Can you feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord, oh lord”

With apologies to Phil Collins and Genesis

 

The Orange County Democratic Executive Committee meets every third Monday of each month at 7:00 PM, and for over the last year the IBEW local 606 has hosted the meetings in their hall not far from Downtown Orlando. Attendance at meetings is mandatory for precinct captains with few exceptions, so there is usually a robust crowd at these monthly meetings. The IBEW hall holds up to 125 people and the room is usually 75% full at meetings. On August 14, DEC members received word that Congressman Alan Grayson was to be a special guest at the meeting and he was to update the membership on the current state of Health Care in Congress. On August 16 Grayson announced a town hall meeting immediately following the DEC meeting.

Neil Boortz, a nationally syndicated right wing talker got the word and went on a diatribe against Grayson, talking on Orlando’s WDBO, which you can see here. Other right wing radio hosts on WDBO as well as other talk stations added fuel to the fire so that there would be a substantial crowd at the hall to protest the proceedings. There is no counter programming for progressive talk within the Orlando media market. The closest radio stations are either in Daytona Beach, Tampa or Gainesville and their signals do not reach Orlando. DEC sent out a message to the membership to come early. The crowd started to assemble at 3:30 in the afternoon. At 4:30 the DEC decided to suspend the business meeting and allow Grayson to address the membership, in effect holding two town hall meetings, one at 7:00 and one at 7:45 for the general public.

For the DEC members Grayson stated several positions that he had not heretofore made generally known. When asked about his position on the public option he stated that he supported it, however, if the bill did not contain it he might still vote yes if other provisions were met, such as the insurance companies returning at least 85% of their premiums to health care benefits, no new taxes on people making less than $350,000.00, the elimination of pre-existing conditions and no change in the quality of Medicare. One participant on Medicare offered her opinion on the misconception that Medicare is free. It is not. Seniors on Medicare pay approximately $100.00 per month for part B and many also buy supplemental plans to cover their deductibles which cost an average of $175.00 per month, plus a prescription drug plan under part D that costs about $35.00 per month depending on where one lives. So, the average senior pays about $3600.00 per year for their “free” health care. Grayson also commented that the current bill will phase out the Medicare Donut Hole over a four year period.

 

DEC Chairman Bill Robinson asked all DEC members to vacate their seats to allow the assembled outside the same opportunity to meet with the Congressman that they had just enjoyed. A mixed crowd was let in consisting of people for, against and undecided on Health Care Reform. By this time the outside crowd had swelled to over three hundred people, many carrying signs for or against, mostly peaceful. There was some contention between groups and there was at least one arrest, but generally all the crowd did was change traffic patterns. There were many comments about this being a “staged” event. The real drama was going on inside.

 

Grayson’s press person, Todd Jurkowski moderated the evening and presented questions from all sides. Jurkowski started the meeting off by requesting that all parties respect the speaker and the meeting. Grayson acknowledged that there were different views in the room and that the difference is really in the means rather than the goal. He took an equal amount of questions from the protesters and the undecideds as he took from the pro people. Many of the issues that he touched upon in the DEC meeting were also discussed during this meeting. He reiterated that if you are currently satisfied with your current insurance you can keep it, plus if you change your employment or lose your job you will not lose your insurance. He added as well that pre-existing conditions will be a thing of the past.

He discouraged critics from asking questions that did not pertain to the bill at hand such as tort reform and Medicare fraud, stating that those issues will be addressed in many other bills (15 to be exact) which will follow. He cited his record as an attorney who has gone after fraud and waste in government and that it is part of his mission in life. He also said that tort cases and medical malpractice account for only 1% of health care costs. Certain protesters denied his claim, so he invited them to show evidence backing their position. When someone asked him about being denied coverage under certain circumstances he directed them to the bill, which was next to the dais as well as on a projection screen. At that point he pointed to the exact page and paragraph, adding that he in fact did read the bill and he was entirely familiar with it. All remarks based on fear and hearsay were directed to the bill. Grayson continually asked people to show him where their allegations were in the bill. At one point a woman alleged that prostate cancer and breast cancer were being treated unequally Grayson told her that if her allegation proved to be true he would introduce an amendment to correct the situation. At least one protester commented that Grayson had presented cohesive and coherent answers to questions and had cleared up many misconceptions. Other protesters would have none of it and kept protesting that the meeting was a setup. Grayson ended the meeting at 10:00 PM with the note that he wanted a bill that would allow people to live and how can we as a nation best help save lives. He’s certain this bill goes in the right direction.

Three hours worth of meeting was given scant coverage on the 11:00 news by all of the local channels. The Orlando Sentinel gave a somewhat accurate account of the proceedings, and columnist Scott Maxwell blogged the event. Unfortunately, neither Maxwell nor the Sentinel reporters discussed the real reason the crowd was so large due to the radio publicity. To their credit, their reporting was mostly non-partisan and straightforward.

As a society we must determine whether debate can be elevated or squelched. The exercising of our first amendment rights also bears the responsibility of allowing others their right to be heard. This meeting may not have been in the classic tradition of the mythical town hall, but this Monday evening many views were heard, no one was shouted down and more than a few people learned something, whether they liked it or not.

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