Cong. Rick Larsen confronts anger at a town hall meeting on healthcare

The hostility is out there, but so are the supporters for reform. Larsen appeals to 'Northwestern civility' in one crowded session in Skagit County.
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Polls show Democratic Congressman Rick Larsen now leading Republican challenger John Koster

The hostility is out there, but so are the supporters for reform. Larsen appeals to 'Northwestern civility' in one crowded session in Skagit County.

Healthcare has become a contact sport for members of Congress home for the August recess, and Rep. Rick Larsen, the Everett Democrat representing Northwest Washington's Second District, was banged around a bit during a trio of meetings in his district over the weekend. But Larsen isn't headed for the disabled list, and in the end his plea for "Northwestern Civility" basically carried the day with an overflow crowd in Mount Vernon on Saturday.

The predictable fears and rumors were out in force, but countered by at least as many supporters of healthcare reform, judging by banners and signs, and reaction to polemics. The Skagit Valley P.U.D. hall's 250-seat capacity was taken half an hour before the 2 pm forum and another 300 or so waited outside as Larsen moved his town hall microphone inside and outside the building for two and a half hours, well beyond the advertised one hour.

Skagit is a county that can go for either party, but Larsen has done well in Skagit since establishing himself in 2000 and 2002 in close elections. The county is less urban than Snohomish or Whatcom, with both farming and timber as important industries.

Larsen had been prepared for hostile crowds, part of a national trend to make this August hot for Democrats, with at least some of the protests orchestrated by Republicans and their allies on the talk-show circuit. He met anger at Oak Harbor Thursday, when a veterans' town hall was quickly taken over by healthcare protesters, and again that evening in Coupville, with more heated objections to Democratic proposals.

In Mount Vernon, with a much larger crowd, many of whom has been standing in line for an hour to get a seat, Larsen called for civility and for the most part got it. When near the end of the ordeal a man called him "slimy, lying and snakey," the congressman gently told him to give up the microphone, remarking that as one of eight children he'd been called worse names. By the time the afternoon ended, the audience was drifting off as questioners began dwelling on personal stories and the worst of the anger seemed calmed if not satisfied.

I spent the afternoon with the crowd outside the hall, which seemed evenly split between loud protesters and quieter but no less numerous supporters of single-payer and public-option reform. The shouters got their say, at times damaging the cause of concerned but modulated folks who pointed out specific problems with Democratic proposals, or asked Larsen for information, which he seemed eager to share.

At least at this meeting, the loudest protests were primarily a fear of socialism, a belief that government could not run healthcare efficiently, anger at Congress in general, and satisfaction with private insurance. There were no charges that "granny" would be euthanized, although one critic expressed fear that the United Nations would take over the program. Supporters of healthcare reform cited the high number of people with no insurance, defended the efficiency of Social Security and Medicare, and criticized the cost and inefficiency of private insurance.

If Mount Vernon is representative of other Washington communities, the climate may be similar to a nationwide environment dominated by extremely vocal and combative opposition to Democratic reforms, countered by a less-vocal but very large cohort of people demanding some variety of reform. At Mount Vernon, the latter group ranged from single-payer advocates to people simply demanding something better than the current system. With Congress yet to come up with a final proposal for the public to debate, the ground favors opponents who can point to any imaginable evil that could be presented, while supporters are left defending a vague set of principles but without specific language.

Larsen is a centrist Democrat who voted with his party's majority 98.6 percent of the time this year, according to The Washington Post. He insists he has yet to decide his vote on a future healthcare bill, although he described enough problems with the present system as "unacceptable" that it would be surprising if he did not support some form of healthcare this fall. Larsen stated that the costs of the present system are hurting small businesses and families without health insurance or jobs, and there is unacceptable discrimination, particularly against those with pre-existing conditions. He reiterated a position against a single-payer system, which many in the crowd supported with signs, but spoke more favorably of a public-option insurance plan.

Larsen won his first two elections, in 2000 and 2002, by identical 50-46 percent margins, but since then has enjoyed margins over 60 percent in his re-election bids, with support from all five counties. He takes his town hall to Snohomish County Wednesday for a 5 pm gathering at Everett Station, his third county forum. No further healthcare forums are slated, but audience demands for more chances to vent may cause sessions to be scheduled in his other counties, San Juan and Whatcom.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.