Outside and inside Target Center on Saturday, activists of different political stripes occasionally managed to find a sliver of common ground on health-care reform.
Republican Doug Bass, holding up a handmade “How Many Trillions?” sign, listened patiently to former FBI agent Coleen Rowley as they stood on a corner across from Target Center before the Obama rally began.
“I’m trying to get common ground, so I told him no one likes debt,” said Rowley, a former congressional candidate who hoisted a handmade “healthcare not warfare” sign. And Bass, who agrees that the deficit is a “looming disaster,” said later, “She was right when she said that not all parties have a monopoly on virtue. … I also think the Republicans need to find a spine.”
Bass, a St. Paul resident, didn’t realize who Rowley was until MinnPost explained she was the local FBI agent who tried to warn Washington before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that Zacarias Moussaoui was taking commercial flight lessons in Minnesota. Clearly impressed, he walked over to talk with her some more.
A mostly pro-Obama crowd
And so it went Saturday as thousands of folks — mostly pro-Obama people — lined up for a chance to hear the president articulate his vision for health-care reform and rally the faithful.
With the exception of a few Minnesota-centric comments about Mayo Clinic and its record of high-quality care for lower costs, we did not hear anything different from his address to Congress on Wednesday night. (See his prepared remarks here and video below.) The crowd did not seem to care. They roared their approval with chants of “O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A” and “Yes, we can; yes, we can.”
And if any naysayers got out of line, they were quickly drowned out with “O-BAM-A, O-BAM-A.”
Another piece of common ground: No one was allowed to take their signs into the arena, not even the pro-Obama people. But if you looked above the first tier of seating, you could see one message running the circumference of the arena in white and blue: “Stable & Secure Health Care.”
Volunteer Lucy Buckner-Watson, who was a Minnesota Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year, said she heard what she needed from the president. “I’m ready. I’m fired up,” she said, answering Obama’s repeated questions to the crowd: “Are you ready? Are you fired up?”
Beyond the inspiration to keep working for reform, she said, “The most meaningful fact is that he explained, No. 1, the government is not taking over health care, and No. 2, it’s not going to take one penny to put us further in debt.”
Over-the-fence discussions fruitful
In recent weeks, Buckner-Watson has gathered 200 signatures on a pro-Obama-reform petition for Organizing for America, which means she has knocked on the doors of a lot of her Republican neighbors in Inver Grove Heights. She managed to get her next-door neighbor to sign the petition for universal health care. How? Numerous back-and-forth discussions over the fence about equality and human rights.
“He’ll have a Pig’s Eye beer in one hand and a cigarette in another, and I bring that (the cigarette) up, too,” she said. “He agreed that health care should be available to everybody, but he wouldn’t give in on immigrants, who he called aliens and foreigners. I said, ‘Don’t call them aliens — they’re not from outer space.’ And he says, ‘they sure act like it.’ ”
That neighbor’s a tough customer. But in talking with other conservative Republicans, she’s found success “when you can bring it home” to them. In her case, it’s a matter of telling the story of her daughter, who graduated from college, got a job and then lost it along with her health insurance. “I was so scared when my daughter said she got a lump in her breast and that she had had it for four months. I asked her why she didn’t tell us sooner and she said, ‘Mama, I knew you didn’t have the money.’ ”
$3,800 and a lot of worry
Thankfully, the biopsy showed the lump was benign but it cost the family $3,800 and countless hours of worry. Anyone can find themselves in similar circumstances when their 20-something children have graduated and can’t find a job or health insurance, she said. “Then, they can relate.”
While guarding a media riser in the Target Center, Buckner-Watson also tried to sway a vendor selling coffee concoctions. Dave Warrington, who went on MinnesotaCare during two years of unemployment, is skeptical of government involvement.
Yes, people of different political persuasions can find common ground for universal health care when it comes to their kids. But the ground gets shaky on how to get there.
Steve Jelinek of Minnetonka, one of the pickets outside Target Center, voted for Sarah Palin. He gets private insurance through his wife’s employer and doesn’t think the government should control health care. “Parents should take out a policy for their children as soon as they know they’re expecting,” he said.
“In the event the child falls on hard times and loses a job, then the taxpayer should assist them,” Jelinek said, explaining his idea for reform. Until then, the insurance company is collecting premiums in good years and bad years.
Concerned about daughters
Bill and Marilyn Knudsen of Eden Prairie, who landed seats in the first row of the first tier, are worried about their teenage twin daughters, one of whom has a thyroid condition that is considered a preexisting condition and currently subject to exclusion by insurers.
“Once she has to get off my husband’s employer-based insurance, will she be insurable?” Marilyn Knudsen said in explaining their support for a public option. Before Obama’s arrival, she said she expected him to repeat what he said to Congress. What did she want to hear? “I need to be reassured that the public option is not getting lost in the shuffle. I think the president gets it, and he’s been trying to pacify the corporations more than what the people’s needs are.”
Obama seemed to know what she needed to hear.
“I have also said that one of the options in the insurance exchange should be a public insurance option,” he told the crowd. “Let me be clear — it would only be an option. No one would be forced to choose it, and no one with insurance would be affected by it,” Obama said. “What it would do is provide more choice and more competition. It would keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better, the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting private colleges and universities.”
‘We gotta do something’
After the president ticked off a series of statistics such as 6 million Americans lost their health insurance in the last year, a voice from the audience shouted, “We gotta do something.”
Obama didn’t miss a beat. “We gotta do something … because it [losing health insurance] can happen to anyone.”
Unlike the congressional address, Obama wrapped up his speech here with a humorous story about a perky Greenwood, S.C., councilwoman who nearly stole the show when he campaigned there last year. Twenty people showed up on a rainy day. As he spoke, he heard a voice from behind proclaiming “Fired up!”
“I almost jumped out of my shoes,” Obama recalled. Then he would hear, “Fired up. Ready to go.”
“I realized I was being upstaged by this woman,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “But after a minute or two, I was feeling fired up. I’m feeling like I’m ready to go.”
One last message to Minnesota from the president: “Are you fired up? Ready to go? Let’s go get this done, everybody.”
If the ensuing deafening roars of “Yes, we can” and “O-BAM-A” are any indication, the Minnesota faithful are ready.
Casey Selix is a MinnPost news editor and reporter who writes about health care and other issues. She can be reached at cselix [at] MinnPost.com.