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Posts published in August 2009

Toward town halls

There hadn't been any certainty about it beforehand, but Oregon Representative David Wu has been getting generally good marks for his town hall performances (in McMinnville, much noted here, and comparably in Portland). And so are others.

Washington Representative Rick Larsen drew a very favorable editorial in the Seattle Times for his Everett event, before a crowd of 3,000: "So there is Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, gently, cautiously guiding his crowd through hours of discussion. The size of the audience, the decision to proceed, took fortitude. Larsen did what he had to do in a high-minded manner. The event at Memorial Stadium in Everett began with the singing of the national anthem. Get it? We are all Americans who love this country. Common ground. From there, Larsen deftly led the crowd, acknowledging arguments on all sides. By conceding all sides have a point, he neutralized some heat in the stadium."

Representative Brian Baird, who had bagged out on live events in favor of telephonic, has changed course and scheduled some live events.

These things help. The craziness can be defused. Sanity can prevail. And maybe will.

Trooper per capita

Just a few years ago one of the big issues in Oregon was the low number of state police on the roads - a number considered low per capita, and too spread out to provide realistic 24-hour service around the state. The concerns were real, and the legislature and governor have, in the last three years or so, increased the numbers of troopers. They are stiller lower than a level most Oregonians would like, but better than they were.

In Idaho, the number of state police hasn't been so big an issue. But maybe it will. From Betsy Russell's Spokesman-Review blog:

"Col. Jerry Russell, chief of the Idaho State Police, just presented stats to lawmakers in response to questions last month about the ISP’s staffing. When compared to the six surrounding states - Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Oregon - Idaho ranks dead last for its number of troopers per citizen, with 11,288 citizens for every state trooper. Washington’s at 8,874. When compared to states of similar size - New Mexico, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Maine - Idaho again ranks dead last, by a huge margin."

Palin presence

Seems worthy of comment when an Idaho congressional candidate is bringing in, in support, the father and father in law of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Difficult to say, though, exactly what.

The candidate is Vaughn Ward, who was the first Republican in the field for the 1st House seat now held by Democrat Walt Minnick. Is a Palin connection really an asset? If so, how much? And why?

The generic-sounding quote on Ward's site from the Alaska duo (Heath Palin did live in Idaho for a time back in the 50s and early 60s) raises an immediate question. The quote is, "Vaughn is a proven leader that will stand up for the people of Idaho," Palin and Heath said. "We are proud to stand behind Vaughn Ward's incredible record of public service." Ward's resume is certainly respectable, as an aide and a staffer and service in the military; but so far as his own web site indicates, this campaign is the first thing he's ever led. That no bar to running for office, but "proven leader" doesn't seem an applicable description.

We'll watch and see what comes next.

A few more town hall words

signs

At the Wu town hall

The man directly behind us in line at yesterday's McMinnville town hall meeting, held by Representative David Wu, was an 84-year-old retiree, attending with his wife. He was mad as hell (he'd surely agree with that description) and he knew what he planned to ask Wu if he got the chance. He told me, partly in rehearsal: "Is your federal death squad going to gas us, or shoot us in the head?"

He was totally serious. And deeply worried, which makes sense if you think that scenario is just around the bend. His wife, next to him, was using a walker: Would they be coming for her?

I told him that scenario was not true. It is a widely-disseminated lie based on a radical twisting of a relatively minor bill amendment proposed by Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, having to do with payment for doctor consults. Death squads are not in the bill. No one is proposing them. And the Medicare he and his wife have been relying on would not change much at all.

Where he got his information originally was unclear, but as he absorbed some of the details, the tension and the anger drained away. Inside at the meeting, he turned out to be among those called on to ask a question. When he did, the basic subject was the same, but his question was calm and dispassionate: I've been hearing about seniors not getting care under this plan, or worse. What can you tell about that? Wu's response, in different words, was about the same as much. The man nodded, and sat down. He looked as if he felt a lot better.

There's an impulse to ask some of the people who talk about death squads and such: How is this even credible to you? Why is it even believable? But cable TV is powerful, and the widespread spread of lies is readily managed - is being managed. The path out from this morass comes not to isolation but from open conversation. The energy level of the relatively few un-civil people at the Wu meeting seemed to flag as the meeting went on and more people, and Wu, had their say.

In the context, the banner headline in today's Oregonian, "Hostile questions fill Wu's town hall," seems a little off-point. Not that there weren't hostile questions, statements, mumbles and grunts; there were. But by no means all the questions were hostile, many of the pro-Wu people didn't pick up ticket numbers to ask questions (many of those were there to listen, or maybe deny a seat to an anti-), and most of the people in the room (you could tell from the timing of applause and other factors) were in the reform group. Outside, there was a protest of sorts, but the crowd there too was mixed. There was no violence, and no one was blocked out.

Jeff Mapes' Oregonian story - keyed around the lead's "mostly hostile questions at a packed town hall Monday evening that brought a political circus" - was accurate but feels incomplete.

Incomplete in part because the context of the meeting, and standards for assessing it, are a little unusual.

By the norms of most town hall meetings, yes, this was highly unusual, and the level of criticism and hostility far higher than most. We've attended a bunch of town halls by members of Congress over the years, and seldom seen anything like this.

But that's not a realistic standard for comparison. Compare instead this one to the town hall explosions around the country, experienced by some legislators, who were shouted down, saw their meetings disrupted, people unable to talk other than in a yell - in other words, other recent town halls this year where the subject was health care and organizers got busy trying to raise the temperature. The McMinnville event, by comparison, was civil, and the points of view widely varied. (Did anyone make any note of the people inside and out carrying signs advocating for single-payer?)

Another comparison comes to mind: A Vancouver (WA) town hall meeting held a couple of years ago by Representative Brian Baird. That one was in a school auditorium, attended by more than 500 people, and the people there were almost entirely opposed to Baird's revised stay-awhile Iraq policy. You could tell from applause and other indicators that no more than a handful of people there were supportive of Baird (or the Bush Administration); the anger in the room was almost visible. Baird was much more on the hot seat, hearing his constituents saying their piece for about three hours, taking far more consistently furious questions in that Vancouver auditorium, than Wu in McMinnville.

There's an irony here. Baird, who has done more than 300 town halls in his district during his decade-plus in Congress, isn't doing them now because (he's quoted as saying) "there's a lynch mob mentality out there."

Maybe there is, to a degree. But Wu's McMinnville event demonstrated, more significantly, that the extreme aspects of the atmosphere can be controlled to the point that civility can be had. And it also showed, in the face of an 84-year-old constituent and many others besides him, the real value and usefulness of trying.

The Mac not-quite attack

wu in mac

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. (more…)

A Utah prescription

utah

Utah Health Care Initiative

Several readers of the recent post here on health care and costs have pointed to a just-delivered speech at the Boise City Club by Utah physician Joe Jarvis, of the Utah Health Care Initiative. The speech is available online.

The speech is called "Too much market, not enough care," and Jarvis' points overlap greatly with those that have been made here. Have a listen. There's a lot of useful material here: "Medicine has once again become a business opportunity. Our body politics has become paralyzed by a market oriented health policy."

From the initiative's web site: "The conventional wisdom about health care is that we should fear socialized medicine (the name offered by those with a proprietary interest in the status quo health system for anything that might threaten their business model) and instead embrace market-based medicine (the notion that health care is a commodity and that unfettered market forces can improve health care delivery). The conventional framing of the health reform debate is bogus. The pretense of a market makes wasteful spending due to a combination of inefficient financing and poor quality care inevitable. What should be feared is not the 'socialization' of American health care. No one, not even the most liberal advocate, is proposing government owned and operated hospitals and clinics in the US. Instead, fear the effects of poor quality health care. The fifth leading cause of death in the US is preventable hospital associated injury. Fear the loss of needed revenues through corporate welfare paid by the taxpayer into the coffers of for-profit insurers and pharmaceutical firms. It is time to change the debate about American health system reform. Rather than worry about coverage, we need to focus on waste. Waste elimination is politically difficult, but essential if sustainable health system reform is ever to happen."

We're en route, just now, to a congressional town hall where the topic do jour is expected to be health care.

After effects

The triple homicide in the small eastern Oregon town Elgin, apparently a spinoff effect of the trade in methamphetamines, has brought a temporary spotlight back to the meth trade and what Oregon has been doing, or trying to do, about it. A couple of points of that light merit a little more attention.

In 2005 Oregon took a highly-publicized step in restricting purchases of many cold medicines, at least those that use pseudoephedrine, because it has been a key ingredient in meth production. The new law appears to have had a significant effect: The number of arrests for meth production in Oregon have dropped drastically (95 percent by one estimate). That would be the good news.

The bad news is that usage doesn't seem to have dropped. And beyond that, aspects of the trade are getting deadlier. From today's Oregonian perspective on the Elgin situation:

"The downside is addicts switched from locally made meth powder to an even more addictive and potent form from Mexico, Roberts said. And that process may have funneled more of the trade to the Hermiston 'pound' dealers. 'Are they making more money now?' Gibson, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking program director, asked rhetorically. 'Obviously there is a lot of money in the drug trade. The price is up.'"

The Hutchison file

Hutchison

Susan Hutchison

If the voters of King County elect as their next executive the former TV news anchor Susan Hutchison - and she is likely to get through the primary election - they won't be able to say they weren't warned about what is likely to happen next.

Hutchison is well positioned at the moment, running against five veteran Democratic elected officials (in the legislature and the county council), all men, who probably have a hard time drawing distinctions between themselves - none has decisively broken out of the pack. Hutchison, the one woman and the one philosophically to the right of the other four, has never run for office before, has fewer policy stands to demand, and is at once the fresh face and (owing to her TV work) probably the best-known countywide. Little wonder she leads in polling and is likely to end the month headed for the general election with one of the other four. How she fares in that revised structure is less clear.

But King County is beginning to learn more about Hutchison than they have known before. In those broadcast years she seemed to have a good television appearance and her smile was warm, but off-camera there seems to have been more to the story.

That grows out of the end of her two-decade run at KIRO-TV, in the time when she was replaced as anchor and later, in December 2002, terminated. Her removal as anchor seems to have had to do with ratings (KIRO was third in the market) and popularity scores, and there's no big lesson to be drawn about Hutchison in any of that. Happens all the time in TV news.

Hutchison filed a lawsuit against KIRO alleging discrimination. Those case records have been sealed. She said in a statement that "There is no doubt that the hard road I chose in fighting against discrimination so many years ago also prepared me for the rigors of this campaign, and the demands of serving in public life." But if so that's a puzzlement, since she fought their release. She didn't want them out.

News organizations including the Seattle Times which this week won their release extracted a different picture. The Times, which noted "no bombshell revelations," also noted that "after being demoted from the anchor's chair, her supervisors said Hutchison's behavior caused her to lose credibility with them." (The Stranger Slog headline on the story: "Deceptive, Delusional, Unpopular: A Portrait of Susan Hutchison.")

There were specifics. One, perhaps minor, involved a period when she claimed sick leave but was seen happily river rafting near Bend. More significantly, she said she was retaliated against for standing up for another employee (an independent review found no evidence of retaliation; and around the time of her loss of the anchor's spot, she began to describe KIRO (to people outside the station) as a "bad environment" owing to "drug abuse and sexual misconduct." The latter, she said, involved affairs and sexual harassment by top managers at the station; evidence has been lacking.

Those documents are a little over half of the total record. More should be coming in a few days.

Other than a brief statement after the release of the records, in which she said she couldn't talk about the situation, there's been no further explanation. The statement that she couldn't talk, though, is odd since the station's attorney explicitly said that there's nothing in the legal agreement that keeps her from doing so.

So put her in charge of a politically-sensitive, massive organization like King County government, and watch what happens . . .

The Blue Oregon bash

Last night the Blue Oregon 5th birthday event, at the Blitz bar in southeast Portland, was packed - hard to even move around a great deal at first. That was the first tip that something here was different from the events we've attended before, which were not low-turnout events, but certainly not as heavily attended as this one.

The other thing had to do with who attended: A lot of politicians were there. Secretary of State Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney, lots of legislators. Portland Mayor Sam Adams (over off to the side). Prospective/sorta already gubernatorial candidate Brian Clem. A smaller percentage, it seemed, independent bloggers than before.

Shifting times. Blue Oregon seems very much to be moving into the mainstream in a way other Northwest blogs haven't yet.

Your money or your life

Political speech on health care, quite a bit of it, doesn't match up well with reality on the ground.

Some of the most critical votes in Congress when time comes, presumably some weeks hence, to vote on health care, will be those of the more skeptical Democrats. One of the Democrats most reluctant to accept the various health plans pushed in recent weeks through committees has been Idaho's Walt Minnick.

He's made a number of statements on health care; one (arriving in email) that seemed to need clarification was this: "Third, no 'socialized medicine.' The health care system of insurance must be private – not run by the government." In Minnick's use of the term (exact definitions can vary by person), what does socialized medicine mean? His press secretary responded:

He is firmly opposed to a public option. We of course have Medicare and Medicaid, and while people who use those services like having the benefits of some healthcare, most people very clearly do not like the process associated with those programs. So that partially informs his thinking.

The other key thing to understand is the reasoning by most proponents of a public option. The proposed plan and its proponents on Capitol Hill very much want a single-payer, single-provider system of health insurance – that is a poorly kept secret in Washington, D.C. They view the public option as a way to not just compete with insurance companies, but drive them out of business. The public option would so effectively kill competition in the marketplace, that the proponents would likely be successful in that endeavor.

For Walt, competition is at the heart of this part of the healthcare discussion. A public company would not have to pay taxes, it could bond without restriction, it could go into debt without being beholden to banks or shareholders and would not have to worry about losses. It could just add those losses to the national debt. Most importantly, it would not have any real incentive to drive down costs, because it would quickly become the dominant, overwhelming force in the marketplace. It would be the largest insurance company in the country, run by the federal government and subsidized by taxpayers at enormous cost. That is socialized medicine.

Walt said something interesting the other day as an off-the-cuff way to oversimplify and explain this. Let’s say you sell bikes. And the bike industry is an absolute mess due to poor standards, a lack of accountability, out-of-control costs which are due to a wide variety of complex factors, and wide spectrum of regulations differing from state to state, etc. The government decides it is critical that the industry be reformed so the cost of bikes stops spiraling out of control. Is the way forward for the government to start its own bike company?

Fairly clear as explanation of philosophy. Now, an explanation of how the matter looks as a matter of governing philosophy, from here:

We have laws, generally accepted across the philosophical spectrum, that prohibit someone from walking into your house (or your convenience store), pointing a gun at your head and demanding "your money or your life."

That is what our health care system is doing to us, right now, and on an immense scale. It is extortion at the least, robbery at the most. Governmental activism is needed to stop it.

That may sound harsh or extreme. It isn't. That way of looking at American health care today could be backed up by any number of statistics or studies, but, as Minnick drew on his experience to inform his take on health care, let me draw on some personal events that occurred about 13 months ago. Individual experiences differ widely, of course, but here's some of what informs my thinking on this: (more…)