Town Hall Tradition Backfires For Some Democrats

While the House is in recess, some Democratic lawmakers are holding dozens of town hall meetings. They're trying to sell their health care overhaul to the voters. What they're finding, though, is local conservative groups are showing up at public events, and in many cases shouting and heckling them.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Some Americans are spending this August on a vacation, staycation, preparing for school, looking for work. Other Americans are spending this August making a statement.

WERTHEIMER: Members of Congress are home for the summer, and local conservative groups are taking this chance to show up at public events shouting and heckling. They're pushing lawmakers over health care.

INSKEEP: In a moment, we'll talk with NPR's Juan Williams about this political summer. We begin with NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK: The latest Town Hall takeover hit House Majority leader Steny Hoyer this week.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): Let me tell you the facts, friend. Let me tell you facts.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Man: He's no friend.

Rep. HOYER: Okay (unintelligible). Let me tell you the facts.

Unidentified Woman: No way.

SEABROOK: It's happening in Maryland, Connecticut, Ohio, Missouri and more. Local conservative groups often from the Anti-Tax Tea Party Movement are crashing lawmakers' public appearances and making headlines for it and maybe this is why. It's a tactic that in the past has worked.

(Soundbite of crowd chattering)

SEABROOK: What you're hearing is not this week, but 20 years ago. It's an angry crowd of senior citizens lashing out at Democrat Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois. They'd been waiting for him to come speak to them.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): When they saw that Dan Rostenkowski was leaving the building they ran out the door.

SEABROOK: Jan Schakowsky organized the group of senior citizens, angry about a new program added to Medicare, and so confronting their Congressman.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: He kind of dashed into the car that was waiting for him out in front at which point the seniors surrounded the car. There was some pounding and quite a bit of shouting.

(Soundbite of crowd chattering)

SEABROOK: One lady named Leona Kozian(ph), wearing pink, heart-shaped sunglasses stood right in front of the car.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: The driver moved the car slightly forward and Leona ended up on the hood of the car, basically.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: So, she and Dan Rostenkowski were like a foot apart from each other with him gesturing her to go away and her gesturing him to come out.

SEABROOK: The scene was broadcast on all the major networks, the snapshot in every paper and a few months later the Medicare law was repealed. Now two decades later, the scene looks a lot like it did then.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Unidentified men and women: Just say no. Just say no.

SEABROOK: On Saturday, this crowd ambushed Democrat Lloyd Doggett outside a grocery store in Austin, Texas. Jan Schakowsky, now a Democratic Congresswoman from Illinois, says it's different. The goal 20 years ago, she says, was to get the Congressmen to talk to constituents. Today's conservative protesters…

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: Their goal is just to silence the conversation and that's a -that's a very different thing.

SEABROOK: Right wing groups are circulating a memo that describes how to shake up Democratic Town Hall meetings. It does not advocate shutting them down. It does say people should shout, argue, get their voices heard. Political science Professor Morris Fiorina is at Stanford. He says these Town Hall meetings started as a way for the member of Congress to tell constituents what was going on.

Professor MORRIS FIORINA (Political Science, Stanford University): But, increasingly I think both proponents and the opponents of policies have realized they can use these as forums to put pressure on the member to try to show public opinion is on their side even though there is relatively small numbers of people doing this.

SEABROOK: Fiorina says today's protests appear to be from fairly small numbers of people, whipped up by the conservative media like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH (Radio host, The Rush Limbaugh Show): I tell you these Town Hall meetings are erupting all over the place. We got audio soundbites from more of them…

Prof. FIORINA: And coupled with modern technology where people can get on their cell phones and use the Internet it's just much easier to mobilize these small intense constituencies now than would have been the case a generation ago, and especially to get a nationwide response.

SEABROOK: So, what may have started as a spontaneous outcry has become more of a political strategy. After Town Hall videos started popping up on YouTube, it didn't take long for the Democratic Party to wade into the fight.

(Soundbite of crowd protests)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) extremist, Republican base is back.

SEABROOK: And the Republicans to lash back.

Mr. LIMBAUGH The Democrats in this country are now dripping with contempt for the public.

Unidentified Man: Now desperate Republicans and their well-funded allies are organizing angry mobs.

SEABROOK: And the result is the modern form of an all-out August PR war.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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