|Outside the Wu town hall, McMinnville/Stapilus|
As the McMinnville town meeting by Representative David Wu broke up, one man in the front row flipped open his cell phone and delivered a call, apparently to his wife – it was a call of reassurance: “Well, it’s over. No automatic weapons.”
Not a bad summation, as these things go. After reports about disruptive congressional town halls around the country, with anti-health reform protesters shouting down congressmen and anyone else who disagreed with them, you can understand why so many nerves and such trepidation accompanied this one. Some congressmen have bagged out on public events, and some (Representative Brian Baird for one) have resorted to telephone-only halls. This event was Wu’s first town hall of the break back in district (several more are scheduled to follow), and both sides in the health care debate were primed for action.
That may have helped defuse it.
The pro-reform side was alerted to the prospect of being swamps by the anti’s, so they moved quickly. We were told both sides (a local Democratic group on one side, and a protest group led by a former county Republican chair on the other) wit with police and Wu officials, and ground rules set. An escalating set of pre-town hall events was loosely planned, but the situation developed this way: A line formed about four hours before the event outside the meeting room, and most of the early arrivals were pro-reform people.
From there, over four hours, the line and participation swelled to somewhere upwards of 700 people, certainly one of the larger political gatherings ever in Yamhill County. (A typical town hall by Senator Ron Wyden, by comparison, typically might draw 100 people, which under normal conditions is considered pretty good turnout.) The crowd appeared well split between sides, the pro-reform people probably in a majority but likely not by a lot.
|The meeting recorded/Stapilus|
The sheer size of the crowd offered opportunity of various sorts. A batch of interviewers, from Portland’s conservative KPAM radio to KOIN television to a number of web video operators, were there to chat with line-standers, and in some cases get into debate with them.
All this might have set up a contentious meeting. But the meeting room had space for about 120 people, so only the early arrivals (we were among them) actually got in. People got a ticket number as they signed in, and got to ask questions when the moderator pulled their number out of a box; the approach spread the questioning around and kept any questioner from dominating the proceedings. The moderator was Jeb Bladine, publisher of the local News Register newspaper and, as he periodically makes clear in his column, Republican.
The crowd was not volcanic. Only about four or five people, all near the back of the room, were really loud or disruptive, or especially snarky. And only a dozen or so more seemed actively in agreement with them by way of shouts and yells. On the three or four occasions when it did go on, others in the majority of the group – about 100 or so of them – called on them to quiet down, and Wu generally took little notice. That led some of the snarkers to mumble that Wu wasn’t listening to them, but he had little choice; had he tried to meet them on their ground, the meeting would have collapsed.
|Wu after the town hall ended/Stapilus|
Those four or five probably would have tried to take over the meeting completely, shouting down Wu repeatedly and yelling over top of anyone else. One man standing in the back spent a good deal of time making noises and faces. But there were too few of them to make a big difference. Wu was never really interrupted in his presentation, and no one was blocked from asking a question. (Two of the antis were denied followup questions, but then no one else got to ask one either – the rules of the meeting.)
It was all about health care – that and nothing but. Some of the questions were broad, and some specific on policy. Some were philosophical. One man, who had been videotaping Q and A’s outside (using the talk radio approach of now-we’re-debating, now-I’m-just-inquiring), remarked that “a lot of us are concerned about socialism,” and doubtless some were; but, to judge from the reaction that got, most in the audience weren’t, at least not nearly as much as he was.
|The LaRouche table/Stapilus|
Wu might have handled some answers in more diplomatic ways, and once or twice (especially on the question of whether he will follow the wishes of the district or his own view on his health care votes) his replies were convoluted enough to deny easy comprehension, or summary. Mostly, he came across as plain and direct. He spoke in favor (generally) of the health care plan running through Congress, and supportive of the “public option,” though saying that he would not necessarily vote against a bill without it.
Most of the really extreme stuff and far-out claims didn’t get into the meeting. The most extreme was outside on the sidewalk by Adams Street, where Lyndon Larouche supporters set up a folding table with pamphlets and magazines proclaiming the usual LaRouche-type conspiracy messages. One of those was visually striking: An image of Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache painted on. You wonder what non-true believers were going to be brought in by that.
Addition: Most of the people attending seemed to be local, but some were not. Some conservatives had travelled in from other areas to attend, hold signs and so forth. And the liberals did the same: A bus project bus, bringing people mainly from around the Portland area, was parked unobtrusively a couple of blocks away. As a while, this worked more or less as it reasonably might: The balance of opinions allowed all sides some say, and averted the domination that has swamped some other town halls.Share on Facebook