Hate Creeps Into Georgia Health Care Debate

Georgia congressman David Scott has found himself in a hot spot in the middle of the debate on health care overhaul. At a town hall meeting last week, the Democrat was heckled and shouted down. Racial intimidation has also come into play; a swastika was painted on a sign at Scott's district office, and faxes with racial slurs have been sent there. Saturday, Scott held another town hall just south of Atlanta to try to address the concerns of his constituents again. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Susana Capelouto reports.

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Another person in the thick of this health care debate is Georgia Congressman David Scott. After a televised confrontation this week with a supporter of the current system, the Democrat was met at his district office just south of Atlanta with racist faxes and a swastika.

Susanna Capelouto of Georgia Public Broadcasting was at a town hall meeting that Scott held yesterday.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: The line outside Mundy's Mill High School in Jonesboro starting forming two hours before David Scott's town hall meeting. Twenty-nine-year-old Eric Smith(ph) was wearing an Obama T-shirt and carrying a homemade sign.

Mr. ERIC SMITH: It says debate is good; lies, hate and racism are un-American.

CAPELOUTO: Smith brought two friends because he says young African-Americans are underrepresented in the debate so far. He himself has not had health insurance since he got laid off and has yet to return to school. He said the recent rhetoric over health care has gone too far.

Mr. SMITH: I mean, there's nothing wrong with disagreeing with the president. I mean, that's healthy. But when you begin to take the debate away from the actual issue, it becomes problematic. And we're here to try to refocus on the issue of health care.

CAPELOUTO: Waiting just behind Smith in line is 52-year-old Gary Hilton(ph). He's a truck driver and has health insurance. He sports a baseball cap promoting the Bill O'Reilly show on FOX News. He says there's nothing racist in the debate.

Mr. GARY HILTON: That's crazy. Come on. Why do they say that: racism? I don't believe that. I don't believe that. I don't care what color you are. I'm looking out for the black people as well as the white people. I think we all ought to have insurance, every one of us.

CAPELOUTO: But Hilton does not support insurance provided by the government, because, he says, it will cost too much.

Once inside, opponents and supporters settle into the bleachers of the school's gymnasium. Most in the crowd of about 600 cheer when Scott appears.

(Soundbite of cheering)

CAPELOUTO: It's getting hot - August in Georgia hot - and there's no air conditioning. People begin to fan themselves with signs, some that say we support Obama's health care plan and some that say Obama care is a death sentence for health care. Standing in the center of the gym, Scott tries to make sure things don't get out of hand.

Representative DAVID SCOTT (Democrat, Georgia): Let me say something before we start, everybody isn't going to agree in here, but we will agree to respect one another.

(Soundbite of applause)

CAPELOUTO: Scott would stand up for the next four hours hearing from people like Judy Peterson(ph), who's prepped with a list detailing language she doesn't like in the health care proposal.

Ms. JUDY PETERSON: I believe that this is a bill to control the American people.

CAPELOUTO: Scott politely takes Peterson's list and tells her he'll check it out. He says 143,000 people in his district do not have health insurance, and that he supports a public option. That makes him a high-value target for both sides.

Gloria Tatum(ph) does not live in his district, but she drove 30 minutes to the meeting to make sure Scott won't back down.

Ms. GLORIA TATUM: Representative Scott, do you have the backbone to stand up to these lies, thugs, health insurance lobbyists? (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Rep. SCOTT: Yes, ma'am.

Ms. TATUM: (unintelligible)

CAPELOUTO: And when Scott said he'd stand firm, much of the crowd broke into a chant.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified People: Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.

CAPELOUTO: In the end, most people got their comments in, but young Eric Smith, who had waited outside, did not. He still said he was glad to be there.

Mr. SMITH: I would've liked to have more questions answered. A lot of people had comments, but we have the guts to stand up today.

CAPELOUTO: As the health care debate proceeds, it's clear there's no lack of determination on either side.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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