Dispatches From a Town Hall: Philly YDS Finds Some Brotherly Love


We set out for the health care town hall expecting battle. Dan Assaraf, Colin Johnson, and Don Hopkins had seen the news earlier in the day, and consequently feared the worst. As a fledgling Young Democratic Socialists chapter at Temple University in Philadelphia, we might have been just a little bit anxious. The warnings of a new "Maoist China" coming forth from a sea of right-wing lunatics and rumors of death panels that will kill grandma echoing through the media were on our minds. However, at the town hall scene, we encountered something quite different.

We arrived at Broad Street Ministry, the chosen venue in Center City Philadelphia, about two hours before the event’s scheduled start in order to ensure front row seats. Even then, a line had already formed, although thankfully consisting mainly of progressive health care reformers. It was quite noticeable from the beginning that the reformers had arrived before the expected droves of right-wing zealots. We were given large signs by Health Care for America Now (HCAN) and we stood in line, with the occasional "Health Care Now!" chant sporadically being belted out from small groups in the line. Although HCAN was dominant, many other groups were present, including ACORN, Health Care for All Philadelphia, and, of course, Philly Democratic Socialists of America. There was slight tension between single-payer advocates and those who set their sights on winning a public option in the short term. But it also seemed clear that a strong majority wanted a public plan, and many supported single-payer at least in the long run.

Joined in the meantime by Sean Monahan of Philly DSA, we waited for two hours, incorrectly expecting buses of the right to show up to antagonize the movement for meaningful health care reform. Somewhat disappointingly, the only opposition group to appear with any noticeability was the local Lyndon LaRouche crowd, whose views were so nonsensical it was unclear if even they themselves knew what they were advocating. The reporters present appeared to be quite interested in the LaRouche signs portraying Obama with a Hitler mustache. Hoping to distract the media from the LaRouchites, we YDS/DSAers started up a new chant – one quite in tune with our socialist foundation. The chant "People Not Profit" began to gain momentum among the crowd. This seemed to attract the media's attention away from the loonies and towards us. Dan must have made an impression, switching from the consensus building "People not Profits" to "What do we want? Single-payer! When do we want it? Now!”, which attracted the voices of more than a few HCANers in the line. This must have impressed the news because a photo Dan and other chanting reformers appeared the next day in several local papers (and one in St. Louis, MO).

Liam O’Donnell of Broad Street Ministries and the moderator of the meeting, opened up by talking a bit about the church itself, the honorable social services provided under the church’s roof, and the expectations of courteous and productive discussion. He called for a civil discourse and reminded everyone in attendance to “see the other as fully human.” A volunteer also announced that water would be served in the back (it was quite hot in the packed building), and that there were restrooms in the front. While pointing out these facilities, he briefly confused right and left before correcting his error. Certainly there was no more ambiguity between Left and Right for the rest of the evening.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D – PA), the featured speaker, introduced himself to cheers, and said that he would stay until he had answered all questions. He claimed to have invited by email about 150 opponents of his position (which was the plan as it existed on August 12th). However, a large presence of organized right-wingers was not evident and the ones that were there tended to be isolated individuals (one explicitly an insurance employee). Audience members asked questions and Rep. Sestak answered them in a calm and courteous way, sometimes directly addressing the question, sometimes shifting the topic to one he was more comfortable with. Sestak actively sought out people who disagreed with him among the questioners, effectively attempting to portray himself as a man who responds to all members of the community – a strategy that made him seem like the good guy, but effectively gave the floor disproportionately to the minority right-wingers to the disservice of the majority in favor of some sort of reform.

When one man, a military veteran probably in his 30s, yelled out at Sestak and started to storm out, all the pro-reform activists tensed up and prepared for a shouting match like those we had seen on TV. Sestak was able to calm him down, bring him back, and a discussion of the effect (or lack thereof) of a public plan on the veteran health care system ensued. In this case and in many others Sestak would direct questioners to members of his staff who had copies of the bill he was advocating, so they could personally look through it and talk to people who knew the legislation well enough to answer more detailed and complex questions. But he frequently dodged questions relating to specific parts the bill, preferring instead to speak vaguely. Typical of a good politician, Rep. Sestak was exceedingly careful not to back himself in any corners about specific provisions.

One woman told the story of being a general practitioner, who left practice a few years ago to fight for health care reform full-time. She said she advocated a single-payer system as the most efficient and effective mode of health insurance. Throughout the night, it seemed that every time someone used the term “single-payer” a large part of those in attendance erupted with applause and cheers. Despite the strong support for such a system in the room, Rep. Sestak said that, while he understood and respects the arguments for single-payer, he instead supports the current bill, which allegedly fosters competition between the private insurance companies and a public plan. He gave the impression of one who could be pushed to the Left if there was sufficient popular pressure, like so many “moderate” Democrats.

In regards to the radical Right, the moment of battle never came, although there were a few more incidents of anger and belligerent questioning. One man (a senior citizen and a doctor) accused the bill of including abortion in the public option, claiming that he would not vote for any health care plan that supported abortion (Rep. Sestak disputed that claim). In another incident, one man, who claimed to be very emotional, read a long statement from a piece of paper. He started with something along the lines of, “I want to say first that I was not paid by anyone to be here.” He clearly had trouble reading the words on the paper, seemed to not understand his own arguments and we found it likely that he had not written it himself, as he claimed. The final of three solutions to the health care problem suggested by this man was “illegals… get rid of them!” As a voter in Pennsylvania’s 7th district, he also informed Rep. Sestak, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re fired!” He did not ask a question.

Dan Assaraf of Temple YDS managed to get one question in after waiting three hours, wanting to know Sestak's opinion regarding the Kennedy and Conrad plans. Sestak seemingly did not seem to know these plans that well, probably because they are Senate bills. Dan's attempts to press him on single payer failed to gain any real concessions from the congressman. Eventually they had to move on to another person.

Even though this town hall is merely a discussion, with minimal impact in comparison with the mighty insurance lobby, it seemed successful. It seemed to fulfill all the promises a democratic and rational discussion of public policy had to offer. There was a search for disagreement, to make sure opposing voices could be heard, people who were generally anxious and angry about health care were allowed to have their say. No one was shut out, and the congressman made himself seem genuinely interested in our thoughts and questions about the legislation. Although Rep. Sestak skillfully dodged the tough questions and the Right held the floor for a disproportionately large amount of time, the Left at least was able to make its presence known and demonstrate that a civil debate is possible. In comparison to the numerous raucous, unproductive town hall experiences throughout the country, this one seemed fulfill the promise it offered: a rational and democratic discussion on health care.

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