A crowd of about two hundred frustrated, anti-health care reform, anti-President Obama Idaho citizens heated up a hotel ballroom in Boise Saturday night.
They were there to give Rep. Walt Minnick, D-CD1, a piece of their minds.
Unlike town halls held in other states, this crowd stayed reasonably in order, although there were waves of audience-wide booing and remonstration. But they listened to a calm Minnick even when they disagreed with him, which was often. When he didn’t give an answer they wanted to hear, Minnick forged ahead and seemed unruffled by negative reactions.
“With everything that is going on around us, the tyranny that is going on around us, my question is what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do about our constitutional rights?” asked T.J Lacey, who leads a group called the 9-12 Project.
Minnick answered that he promised to protect those rights when he was sworn in. Not satisfied, the crowd broke in with questions challenging him on the constitutionality of the health care bill.
Minnick said, “This is not a bill I’m going to vote for, by the way…this particular bill, no I will not vote for it because it’s not paid for and it includes a government option, and that violates two of the principles I was talking about. I will say though that I think health care reform is an important enough topic that I hope we can find a bill that does help us control costs, that does help us expand access, and that at some point in the process we can come up with a bill, hopefully on a bipartisan basis, that I can vote for. I’m looking for that opportunity.” That netted polite, but not enthusiastic, applause.
Challenges About Democrats
When asked for whom he voted for President, Minnick didn’t hesitate to say he voted for Obama. Over another wave of boos, Minnick said, “I vote for the presidential candidate I think will best serve the needs of the country.”
“We want to make sure the President succeeds, because when the President succeeds the nation succeeds,” he added.
A loud and negative reaction to that question was silenced by the evening’s host, Nate Shelman from Boise radio station KBOI. Shelman skillfully quieted incivility throughout the evening. So did many audience members who regularly shushed people who booed or talked out of turn.
The subject of congressional earmarks was part of several questions. Minnick, who campaigned on a no-earmarks platform and has angered several interest groups in Idaho which were counting on them, reiterated his stance. “In fact, President Obama requested of Congress that we make a rule that prevents any senator or congressman from requesting an earmark. I support the President on that.”
Silence followed. This crowd wasn’t going to applaud any answer that included Obama, even when they agreed with one of the president’s views. Then a voice from the audience broke in with, “Aren’t you ashamed of Barack Obama? Aren’t you ashamed of the Democratic Party?”
“Am I ashamed of President Obama? No, he’s our president,” answered Minnick. “But I do not agree with how Congress so far has dealt with the [health care] issue.”
“And I am not ashamed of the Democratic Party. Like most people, my party does things that some I agree with, some I don’t. I don’t take orders from the Democratic caucus or from all the emails and phone calls to my office – at the end of the day my staff and I sit down and sort it all out.”
Minnick said he admired Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo for using bipartisan collaborative techniques to pass legislation such as the Owyhee Canyonlands bill, but “I’m very comfortable being in the majority party, and I think I can get more done being the camel inside the tent instead of the one outside.”
Health Care Questions
About half the questions were about health care. Fear about so-called “death panels” (here’s the actual section of the bill regarding end-of-life issues and here is a very good Q. and A.) was a frequent theme. Bill Ripple of Boise said he was a veteran and wanted to know what Minnick was going to do about “all this euthanasia of the greatest generation that ever lived.”
After paying tribute to Ripple and all veterans – and adding that he was an Army veteran – Minnick was cut off by a telephone call from Crapo. After Crapo’s part of the town hall was over, Minnick addressed Ripple’s question when a similar one came up. Minnick said that nine years ago he had been in a serious car crash, and spent 24 hours on a respirator, fully conscious. “And let me tell you the quality of life was not that great. I’d like to be able to provide some directions to my caregivers about my wishes.”
A murmur of doubt and some suspicious words said that the audience was wary of the statement.
“It’s an individual decision, an individual freedom,” Minnick said. He added that he’ll fight for living-will provisions to be included in a health care bill. He advocated electronic health care records as a way of cutting costs and providing better care, which the crowd didn’t care for, either.
“Failure to live within our means is the number one problem facing this country,” said Minnick, which got a loud round of applause. So did his support for allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines for clients. “If we want competition to work, we want more than two competitors in each market.”
A Matter of Style
Sen. Crapo’s phone call was put on a loudspeaker. The evening’s only just-this-side-of-exploding questioner took the microphone to say he was from California, and “I had to run from the damn place” because of illegal immigrants. He was upset about “people who don’t belong here,” and got the crowd agreeing loudly. His speech ended with talking about the murder of Robert Manwill and how “people like that” [the killers] should get the death penalty. “Kill ‘em!” he said, abruptly leaving the room. He was pouring sweat and used an aggressive walk and gestures, saying, “I can’t stand this anymore” and mumbling similar ideas.
Without condemning the questioner’s choice of words, Crapo’s answer was in agreement.
Crapo’s rhetoric differed from Minnick’s. One-on-one, Crapo is exceptionally calm and understated. He cast that aside for the town hall, using the same fired-up tone of the audience and the language they wanted to hear, which had them clapping and hooting. His county-fair style contradicted his face-to-face demeanor.
Minnick looked and sounded exactly like he always does, on and off the podium – not nervous, but a little awkward, wonkish, and well-spoken, with a temperament that prevents him from emotional arguments or outbursts. He paid too much homage to his Republican colleagues to please some Democrats, but not enough to please the crowd. Liberals won’t like it that he thought it was a “useful suggestion” when someone shouted “close the borders!” Republicans who crossed the party line to vote for him hated hearing of his support for President Obama.
When the meeting broke up, audience member Fred Birnbaum, a financial analyst for a timber company, said he respected Minnick, but still had concerns.“People expect some sort of a solution and I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. “Things are much worse than people perceive because they don’t really understand the fiscal balloon that’s happening – the federal government – not only are we talking about the 1.8 trillion dollar deficit and the 12 -13 trillion debt – it has about 50 trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities for federal pensions, military pensions, social security and medicare – and that’s before all this new spending.”
Michelle and Louise, who didn’t want their last names used, said they resented Congress for deciding how to spend their money. I asked if they thought voting for a congressperson meant giving that authority to her or him on their behalf. “Absolutely not,” said Louise. “That is only for us to decide.” But they liked Minnick. “He came here and was honest.”
Laszlo Bayer, a retired former CEO of an international conglomerate who spent much of his life in his native Hungary, had questioned the concept of “czars” appointed by the President, and the audience had reacted with hear-hears. Afterward, he said he knew that the word was probably coined by the press and not the government, but he strongly objected to “appointees being able to make spending decisions” and said “we have to look at government encroachment.”
“I disliked General Motors management for thirty years,” said Bayer. “Incredible that those people had that long a run. I blame them for not going to the stockholders and being honest.” But, Bayer said, there should have been no bailout.
Blogger Joel Kennedy, who calls himself a “moderate realist” and says “In Idaho, that makes me a Democrat” wrote this about the town hall: “There was lots of cheering for the concept of putting people in jail who tried to use the emergency room and not pay, but they also complained about the high cost of incarcerating people and wanted frequent use of the death penalty. Combining the two, it seemed the only logical solution to their conundrum was to execute poor people who couldn’t afford to pay their hospital bills.” He liked Minnick for attending the meeting: “I applaud Walt for going into the lions’s den, and hope others will do the same.”
Idaho Democrats have been struggling with their feelings about Minnick’s conservative positions, and some feel betrayed by his attendance at the town hall. Were they hoping he’d lecture and condemn the crowd for their political views? I can’t imagine that would have any positive results.
Nearly half of the questioners thanked Minnick for his attention, especially after the official end of the meeting came and he said staying longer was fine by him. His noncombative approach won the respect of many audience members who talked to me. By clearing up some of the misinformation questioners were using, he may have changed a mind or two. Certainly by just listening to them, he opened the door for future exchanges which may be more thoughtful.
Though I don’t agree with this group of citizens, and I condemn the organizations they follow for their extreme disrespect, fear of change, and unwillingness to participate in a collective society – not to mention their unacceptable public tactics – nobody wins when a congressman picks a fight. Everyone deserves to be heard by their representatives, even people who get their facts wrong. Minnick handled them straightforwardly, and it was the right thing to do.
Full disclosure: the writer is a friend of Minnick’s wife, A.K. Lienhart-Minnick.