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

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.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/14/2009 - 02:41 pm.

    Straka told me two weeks ago that Betty was planning a town hall “at the end of August”….was he mistaken?

  2. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 08/14/2009 - 03:00 pm.

    Thank you for actually covering the meeting, reporting some of what was said, and talking to the people who showed up.

    Part of the problem with the healthcare debate is the lack of actual coverage by any kind of press. The newspapers, TV and radio stations like the soundbites and pictures of the raucous behavior that ensues at these meetings, but fail to actually show up and report on the intelligent comments made by people on both sides.

    How can we have a debate if we don’t know what is being said beyong “Death Panels” and “Socialism”?

  3. Submitted by Justin Bigelow on 08/14/2009 - 06:59 pm.

    As a former constituent of Betty’s (I hopped the river…), I was never more proud than when she introduced a constitutional amendment declaring health care a right of all citizens. Obviously, it didn’t go very far, but Betty has been at the forefront of health care issues. Thanks Betty!

  4. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 08/14/2009 - 10:30 pm.

    I attended a meeting in Senator Klobuchar’s office today by accident. I happened to stop by Klobuchar’s office at the same a similar group was there and, without understanding the nature of the group, I went into a meeting with them and Klobuchar’s aides. I thought the group was just a group of citizens like myself who had dropped by Klobuchar’s office to make comments on the health care reform issue and that the aides had convened a meeting as a matter of courtesy. (I am a big supporter of Obama’s effort to make health care accessible and affordable to all in the USA.)

    I certainly heard an earful. The most common line heard from the group’s members: “I don’t want the government involved in my health care.” Other members of the group claimed that health care would be rationed, that a Canadian style system would prevent citizens from timely access to health care, etc. Members of the group clapped loudly for each other’s angry comments. In time, it all seemed so far fetched and paranoid that I decided I did not have the patience to listen any longer. I must say that Klobuchar’s aides were quite self-possessed and listened patiently.

    I was impressed with how self-centered and selfish members of the group seemed. I did not hear one of them express any concern for those without insurance. Indeed, I was so impressed by the selfishness displayed that after the meeting I googled psychopathy to find out what percent of the population lacks the ability to feel empathy for others.

    It was an interesting experience. I have not seem quite this same level of self-absorption since the ’60’s. The wish to deny health care access to others seems similar to the wish to deny human rights to others in the ’60’s. Indeed, the angry mood in the room reminded me of the hateful mood that was present in 1963, when George Wallace blocked two black students from entering the University of Alabama, surrendering his position only when President Kennedy federalized the Alabama national guard. Later when there were racial demonstrations in Birmingham, Wallace ordered that demonstrators be attacked fire-hoses and police-dogs. The anger in the room today about the government’s interest in expanding human rights to include access to health care was similar to the displays made in the South in the ’60’s.

    These are historic times and access to health care is a human rights issue.

  5. Submitted by Nancy Gertner on 08/15/2009 - 02:05 am.

    Well, this sounds like quite a circus! I missed the clowns. Will have to see if I can watch that town hall video some time.

  6. Submitted by Annette Caruthers on 08/15/2009 - 07:55 am.

    Many thanks to Doug Grow for writing this, and to Rebecca Hoover for her thoughts. I still find it unbelievable that people can be so uninformed that they vote against their own best interests, and even turn out for Tea Party visits like the above. More and more people all the time are feeling like pawns in a game played by big corporations and financiers, and don’t get careful accurate information to help them make good decisions. I have family who are uninsured and travel to Mexico for medical care, and family who are uninsured and forego medical care until they get a job that provides insurance, etc. When you watch this happen to your own family you begin to see medical care as a human necessity, and yes, a right. When did we become a country that likes seeing people suffer while health insurance executives (i.e. William McGuire) receive billions?

  7. Submitted by Mike Sarenpa on 08/15/2009 - 08:35 am.

    After seeing so many clips of overheated “protesters” shouting down speakers, cheering wildly for inane talking points, and generally displaying a near gleeful ignorance of basic facts I’m reminded of an old saying: “Beware arguing with the idiot, he’ll drag you down to his level, then beat you with experience.”

  8. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/15/2009 - 09:04 pm.

    There is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there on the various plans for changing the health care system.

    Perhaps what this is really about is the increasing anxieties of those Americans that feel shut out. Poor and working class society in a vastly changing culture and a vastly changing economy. These are real and meaningful anxieties and we are seeing people trying to exploit those anxieties.

    The fear of Obama not being a citizen. Notions of people having to stand in front of a “death panel” and defend their right to live.

    We’ve seen a handful of folks, both in corporate media and the republican party try to elevate those ideas in an effort to exploit those anxieties.

    The anger and rage are in my mind being exploited by the GOP, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh. And what this is about is saying to folks who are anxious about their place in the world– Ok you’re feeling left out, your feeling concerned about where you want to go. Here is a place to direct that anger…

    If a few of the “people of rage” were asked, I would not be surprised if they could not articulate their reasons for their so called rage. But then they have the Beck’s,the Limbaugh’s and the Dobbs’ to articulate that rage and anger for them.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/15/2009 - 09:14 pm.

    Well. I hope Betty! enjoyed the sashimi….it’s not like there was anything important going on at home anyway.

  10. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/15/2009 - 11:40 pm.

    Oh yeah, Tom, nothing important in Tokyo, just her son’s wedding, and if she’d missed her son’s wedding, the Republicans would have criticized her for that, too.

    Would you miss your child’s wedding on the off chance that someone might show up in your workplace to harangue you?

  11. Submitted by Laura Littleford on 08/16/2009 - 04:02 pm.

    I am disappointed that Minn.Post reports like the other news sources almost exclusively about opponents to Obama’s health care initiatives. I have volunteered for Organizing for America in favor of Obama’s public option, among his other poposed health insurance changes. At Senator Klobuchar’s office last Thursday, I was joined by many supporters of Obama’s plan and, the previous weekend, was canvassing for petitions in support of the public option. The majority of neighbors I spoke to were, again, in favor of Obama’s public option. Don’t count us out–and tell our stories as well.

  12. Submitted by Kent Herschbach on 08/16/2009 - 10:54 pm.

    We the people of the 4th Congressional District, told Rep Betty McCollum, in no uncertain terms, not to vote for the T.A.R.P. program. She ignored our pleas and voted for it, telling us afterward, that she knew better than we, what was good for us. Now, after burying us under a mountain of debt, she wants to loot health care to pay for it.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/17/2009 - 09:00 am.

    Turns out there is quite a bit of video from the McCollum rally flying around. Here’s an excellent one:

    Notice that while people were certainly pointed in their rejection of socialized health care, it isn’t until the lefties in attendance stood up to get in people’s faces that things got “caffeinated”. The guy in the Che beret is from Minneapolis, so I guess the left has decided not to make the residency of protesters an issue any longer…

    Also note the fellow sitting to Doug Grow’s left; that’s Andy Driscoll, an avowed Socialist.

    Good friend of yours, Doug?

  14. Submitted by Lorri Zuleger on 08/17/2009 - 01:51 pm.

    when you (the government) can make the rules for the guys you’re “competing against” in the health insurance industry (health insurance companies) even the most remote idea of “competition in the market place” is void and simply not true. And yes, impossible. That’s cheating. You remember when you were a kid and the team you scored against while playing flag football changed the rules mid-game to favor his team? That’s exactly what’s going on with “health insurance reform.” Health insurance companies, in the long run, will be unable to compete with the government because the government will simply make rules to favor themselves. Additionally, it was the government that made the health insurance industry what it is with its 100,000+ page book of rules regarding medicare, among other things (mandates, regulations, and what not).

    We have to remember…the government that is trying to “reform” the health care industry is the same government that created the health insurance industry monster that we currently have.

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