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Tea Party session with McCollum staff quickly becomes highly ‘caffeinated’

Somebody must have slipped some caffeine into the iced tea. When staff members of 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum learned that members of the Minnesota branch of the Tea Party Patriots were going to show up at her St.

Rep. Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum

Somebody must have slipped some caffeine into the iced tea.

When staff members of 4th District Congresswoman Betty McCollum learned that members of the Minnesota branch of the Tea Party Patriots were going to show up at her St. Paul office this morning, they quickly planned a cordial greeting. There were to be smiles and hearty welcomes and decaf iced tea.

The Tea Party crowd, you see, is strongly opposed to just about everything McCollum stands for. Tea Partiers are especially opposed to the sort of health care reforms the Obama administration and McCollum are trying to push.

As the first people started showing up, everything went pretty smoothly.

They were greeted by Josh Straka, who heads the St. Paul office, or other members of McCollum’s staff.

“Have some tea,” Straka would say. “We know you’re fond of tea.”

This generally brought a chuckle.

Next, those entering were handed a clipboard and asked to fill out their name and address. There were spots on the form for questions for McCollum and for comments.

“She’ll want to see your comments, and we’ll respond to all of them,” Straka would say.

Overflow crowd meets staff
But as more and more people arrived, it became harder and harder to control the mood. By the time the meeting began, at about 11:15, there were as many as 50 people in a room that would comfortably handle 15 or 20 people.

Some were handing out literature: “Stop ObamaCare NOW!” One man was wearing a T-shirt with Mount Rushmore imprinted on it. Above the monument were the words “Right Wing Extremist,” and under the monument were the words “Guess I’m in Good Company.” Two women were wearing T-shirts that read “Socialism — an equal opportunity destroyer.”

Straka started the meeting by trying to explain that “this is a working office where we handle constituent service issues. We deal with veterans affairs problems, problems people might be having with Medicare, things like that. We need to keep the noise down.”

Many in the crowd apparently didn’t hear Straka.

The people, who didn’t arrive in the best of moods, got even testier when they learned that McCollum was not at the office.

“We pay her salary, where is she?” demanded a woman.

“She’s at her son’s wedding,” Straka said.

“Where’s that, we’ll go to the church,” yelled someone from the crowd.

“It’s out of town,” said Straka. (Way out of town, as a matter of fact. The wedding is in Japan.)

“Even if my son was being married right now, I would be at this meeting if I were a congresswoman,” yelled one woman.

This brought cheers.

“But we weren’t even given notice you were coming,” said Straka, who explained that the only advance knowledge of the gathering came via the grapevine.

Straka did his best to remain cool.

When some demanded that McCollum hold a town meeting, he offered to play them a video of a town meeting she’d held in July.

“Many of you were there, and many of the points you are concerned about were brought up at that time,” he said.

Hoots and hollers
This comment brought hoots and hollers from the crowd.

“We are the people who pay the bills. We don’t want to sell our freedom,” yelled a man from the crowd.

“If you fill out your concerns on the form we handed out, we will respond to them,” said Straka. “This is a way to make your voice heard. But you should know that there’s strong support for reform in this district — 2 to 1 support reform.”

“We don’t see them here,” yelled somebody to cheers.

Straka calmly reminded people that “this is a working office.”

But sometimes, it was difficult for him to remain totally cool.

One man started off on a litany of the evils that he believes are contained in the health care reform bills in Congress.

“It’s loaded up with reparations,” he yelled. “There’s insurance for illegal immigrants; hospitals on the border for illegals.”

Responded Straka, “I’ve heard there’s euthanasia in the bill, too. But it’s not.”

Interestingly, perhaps a third of the crowd appeared to be old enough to be on Medicare.

After the meeting, I approached an older woman who had made strong statements in opposition to “government-run programs.”

“Are you on Medicare?” I asked.

“No, I was a federal employee,” she said. “I’m on the program for retired federal employees.”

“Are you satisfied with it?”I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Isn’t that a public program?” I asked.

“But if this bill passes, I might have to switch to it [a new program],” she said.

“Could I have your name, please?” I asked.

“Who are you?” she said.

I re-introduced myself as a reporter from MinnPost.

“I’m not going to give you my name,” she said. “It may end up on an enemies list.”

Many in this group seemed very concerned about lists and about the government having access to their private medical records. Some tied their concerns to health care reform, and some to cap-and-trade programs, and some to light rail and federal highway programs.

Not all the comments seemed quite so, ummm, surreal.

Health care reform concerns
Gary Fishbach, who came to the meeting with a cowbell, had one big concern with any reform that would bring the government into health care.

“I’m just a guy from Highland Park, and I don’t want to see Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions,” he said.

He admitted that would not be required in the current proposed legislation, but “once the government gets involved, who knows what will happen.”

Fishbach said he gets most of his information from conservative blogs and conservative talk radio.

“At least they’re talking about specific things in the bills,” Fishbach said. “The major media isn’t doing that.”

“Could some of the things being brought up on the blogs be taken a bit out of context” I asked.

“I’m sure they’re looking for things to get people to rally around,” he said.

He also admitted that he’s not always totally happy with the health insurance program he has through his employer.

“But how will private insurers be able to compete against the government?” he asked. “The government makes the rules, and you can’t compete against somebody making the rules.”

The meeting broke up shortly before noon, with Straka again calmly asking people to fill out the forms with their questions and concerns.

“Is Betty supporting this?” yelled someone.

“She’s supported health care reform for 10 years or more,” said Straka.

“You tell her we’re going to vote her out of office,” yelled someone.

There were loud cheers.

McCollum, a five-term congresswoman, received 69 percent of the 4th District vote in 2008.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.