Photos courtesy of Karl Johnson
Congressman James Moran (D-VA), who represents Virginia’s 8th congressional district which covers a large chunk of northern Virginia including Arlington and Alexandria, held a health care town hall meeting tonight at South Lakes High School in Reston, VA. He didn’t go at it alone, however, as he was joined by Gov. Howard Dean. Town halls across the country have become infamous for the shouting and protesting of people against the current health care reform efforts and they hit a dramatic peak when Rep. Barney Frank last week, now famously, told a constituent that arguing with her was “like arguing with a dining room table” because of her ill-informed question asking why he supports Nazi policies.
Tonight’s event started off with very long lines, which began forming hours before the doors were to be opened, protruding out from both sides of the school. The gym’s capacity was close to 2,500 people seated and perhaps another 500 standing. The doors had to be closed at around 7pm, when the program was to start, because the limits had been reached despite those still waiting outside. The media was out in mass for the event and live coverage was provided on CSPAN. The media, and perhaps a large percentage of the constituents, came out to witness what was sure to be an interesting night. Most did not leave disappointed.
Rep. Moran opened the event with a few words about free speech, democracy and even civility. He referred to the leaflets that had been left on every chair concerning George Washington’s code of civility, which discussed how to be courteous to your fellow town hallers (Including no singing when someone is talking? But I love to sing at meetings!). His opening remarks, which drew screaming and booing even though he had not yet offered anything of opinion, were followed by a prayer by a local rabbi. Even the prayer was not immune to loud outbursts as phrases mentioning the need for fixing health care brought such loud commotion that the prayer had to be briefly paused.
The Congressman delivered his thoughts on current legislation, as well as presented slides on what the most common health care myths are, over a course of about 45 minutes that included loud chanting from both sides. After Moran introduced Gov. Dean, he had to come back to the microphone after only a minute or so to calm down the crowds. The noise was so loud, a combination between the vocal minority and the responding majority, that Moran himself could not hear the Gov’s words even though he was sitting only feet away. Dean proceeded to give his talk but kept it very brief to allow more time for constituent questions.
From my personal account, I would venture to guess that about 70% of the attendees were in support of the current reform initiatives while roughly 30% were strongly against it. This is no surprise given the makeup of the 8th district, but, as you would expect, that minority was very loud and boisterous and did not shy away from standing up and screaming while others tried to ask or respond to questions. At least one man was removed from the gym because of his major disruption and Moran called the person out by name at the microphone because he announced to the press previously that he had planned to disrupt the event. The Congressman also offered the protester the right to ask the first question if he agreed to stop the disruption, but the man refused.
About 10 questions or so were taken from the audience and, while they did cause quite a stir in public reaction, none of them were completely off the wall. The atmosphere in the gym was quite intense and there was hardly a single moment through the entire 2 and a half hours that didn’t include someone yelling, chanting, screaming or cheering. The Congressman handled himself very well through the entire event and was seemingly able to show appropriate respect to everyone during what must have been an incredibly frustrating couple of hours. I also felt that Gov. Dean’s comments were very helpful as he provided informative insight from a Dr’s perspective more-so than a politician’s perspective.
It wasn’t quite a Barney Frank episode, but this town hall was exciting and adventurous none the less. Despite all of the noise made and the opinions angrily voiced from both sides, the event did come off as informative and valuable – and nobody got hurt.