MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Already nearing the homestretch of the monthlong August recess, Rep. Rush Holt (D) braved the health care klieg lights for the first time on Wednesday night, appearing before hundreds of frustrated voters in this Jersey Shore township about an hour’s drive from the Lincoln Tunnel.
More than an hour before the event was to start, a line of more than 750 people ringed the Middletown Arts Center’s parking lot. The crowd appeared to approximate the anecdotal mix of attendees at health care events throughout the country this summer: throngs of highly motivated activists with varying degrees of support for and opposition to Democratic-sponsored health care proposals, along with a handful of Lyndon LaRouche supporters displaying posters of President Barack Obama donning Adolf Hitler-style mustaches.
No one in the line appeared more anxious than John Mennella. A rigid, 42-year-old Holt constituent, Mennella said in an interview before the town hall that he has unsuccessfully attempted to contact his lawmaker on numerous occasions to discuss health care.
While standing in line, Mennella rattled off specifics of the varying health care bills like a pupil prepping for a spelling bee. He would later become the evening’s most vocal heckler, shouting questions at Holt continuously throughout the event, drawing jeers and cheers from the crowd and, at times, testing the Congressman’s patience throughout the evening.
“He has avoided us as much as he could,— Mennella said as he waited anxiously in line. “They work for us. We don’t work for them.—
Barry Portnoy, 56, queued up for two hours in the hopes of questioning Holt, whom he has voted for in past elections. The owner of a local plumbing, heating and cooling supply company, the 2008 John McCain voter said before the town hall meeting that the status quo is unacceptable — but so, too, are the current Democratic proposals.
“There is no president’s proposal,— Portnoy said. “The lack of leadership is astounding.—
Michael Craig, 41, held a sign that read “Obamacare Will Kill My Daughter.— His 4-year-old blind daughter, who sat beneath him in a wheelchair, was born without part of her brain and eats through a feeding tube.
Earlier this month, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, made headlines for claiming on her Facebook page that “my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care.—
“If this bill passes, she doesn’t contribute to society, she won’t get the procedures she needs,— Craig said. “If the seniors will be at risk, then so will my daughter.—
The local fire marshal limited attendance at Wednesday’s town hall meeting to 238. Standing in line with her husband and daughter, Synnove Bakke, 38, was unlucky No. 239. Like hundreds of others that night, the self-described conservative made the trek to Middletown to voice her concerns about Democratic-proposed health care reform measures.
Bakke, who lived in Norway for more than two decades, said she has “seen what nationalized health care has done.—
“I’ve seen the procedures that don’t get done,— she said.
Many of those turned away at the Holt event made their way to the back of the building, where Holt’s 2010 GOP challenger was hosting his own town hall event. Michael Halfacre, the mayor of Fair Haven, said he hopes to harness voter frustration over health care into an upset next year.
“There is going to be a backlash,— Halfacre predicted.
Law enforcement officials later estimated that more than 400 people attended Halfacre’s event.
Likely trying to avoid the prime-for-Youtube showdowns at some town hall meetings earlier this August, Holt answered handed written questions that were selected at random, limiting the opportunity for grandstanding and allowing him to display his unquestionable breadth of health care policy.
In an interview before Wednesday’s town hall, Holt did not appear intimidated by the angry masses, but suggested that it may be difficult to make a complicated argument for health care reform to people armed with bite-sized talking points that may or may not be true.
“Politics is the balancing of competing interests,— he said.
A former physicist, Holt displayed a mathematician’s discipline and an English professor’s enthusiasm on Wednesday night, an image reinforced with continual hand gesturing and a slightly rumpled appearance. The lawmaker, a member of the Education and Labor Committee, discussed health care policy with the intensity and knowledge that many men half his age use to discuss football.
But he also appeared to understand that complicated policy arguments may only get you so far, turning tightly crafted phrases intended to counter intense conservative messaging during the August recess on health care.
“On average, Americans are living sicker, dying younger and paying more,— Holt told the audience in his opening pitch. “For most Americans, we have a health care system that is broken.—
Another part of Holt’s pitch was touting the popularity of Medicare, a single-payer insurance program for retired workers that Holt called “successful.— He told the crowd that many people in attendance on Wednesday night appeared to be of retirement age and said Medicare is providing “good health care— to millions.
But not everyone appeared to agree.
“You lost us there, Congressman,— one audience member yelled.
Holt also tried to dispel some of the more outrageous anti-reform messages circulating on the Internet and cable television in recent weeks. Holt told the crowd that the eventual Democratic bill will not include death panels and does not provide health insurance to undocumented workers.
Holt, a member of the New Democratic Coalition, also readily admitted to the crowd that the health care debate presents “no simple calculus— for how to reconcile his district’s vast spectrum of beliefs. In a Democratic Caucus now populated by a powerful core of pro-business moderates, Holt is unlikely to be alone in his acknowledged struggle.
“It’s my job to extract … the values of this district,— he said.