By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
PUEBLO — Like other members of Congress, Sen. Michael Bennet is using the monthlong session recess to talk with constituents about the proposed government health care plan. The Democrat’s discussion in Pueblo turned into an ambush by a mob of angry protesters — many of them grandmas and grandpas.
Health care reform has exploded into a divisive issue under President Barack Obama — just as it was under President Bill Clinton nearly 15 years ago.
The demonstration erupted outside of Jorge’s Sombrero Restaurant and Cantina, where Bennet was holding a “meet-and-greet” event on Aug. 8. The presence of the anti-government “wild bunch” was shocking in this Democrat-dominated destination.
Bennet chose a restaurant that is a favorite of locals and visitors — none more high profile than then-candidate and future first lady Barack and Michelle Obama, who dined at Jorge’s after a campaign rally last year. Photos of the couple are proudly displayed in the window at the restaurant’s entrance.
Located on East Evans Avenue, Jorge’s is an inviting beacon, with its chili-pepper-green and red striped awning, massive outdoor mural of dancers painted by George Chacon and the aroma of Mexican fare.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, those enticing features were eclipsed by nearly 100 people protesting the proposed government health care plan that has passed the House of Representatives and will be considered by the Senate next month.
“Just say NO!” yelled the demonstrators, pumping hand-printed posters and waving American flags and a bright yellow Patriot flag featuring a striking rattlesnake and the “Don’t tread on me” warning.
The flag, created during the Revolutionary War, was first resurrected by anti-government activists and militias during the so-called “Patriot Movement” against Clinton in the 1990s. Now, the target of disdain is another Democrat — Obama.
“I hate Obama-nation!” seethed Mary Elizabeth Hall, who was wearing a red sun hat and clasping a placard that read, “Save our Democracy — Stop B.O.’s Socialism.”
“Our country has become an abomination!” she shouted. “We are stalwart Republicans, and we pay for our own health insurance.”
Like other protesters, Hall berated Obama for piling yet more debt on taxpayers — this time for “socialized medicine.”
Worse, Hall, age 67, fears that the government health care plan would “euthanize” elderly Americans.
Her fear was echoed by a young man whose poster sarcastically stated, “Obama-care: Another shovel-ready project” next to a sketch of the ghost of death hovering beside a gravestone.
Then Bennet arrived in an SUV, sparking more furious chanting and yelling. A couple of Jesse-Ventura-sized, dark-suited Pueblo Police officers cut a path through the crowd for Bennet, who hastened into the restaurant.
Despite the commotion, Bennet appeared cool and calm as he strolled into the restaurant’s private meeting room, where about 125 guests waited. They had signed up to attend this quasi-private meeting — and most were deemed supporters of the freshman senator who was appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter to replace former Sen. Ken Salazar.
The guest list was insurance that Bennet’s meeting wouldn’t be a replay of the publicized protests that disrupted the town hall meetings of Democratic members of Congress last week.
Rep. Lloyd Dogget, D-Texas, had been shouted down by several hundred citizens shouting, “Just say NO!” during a town hall meeting in Austin.
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Florida, was besieged in Tampa by protesters yelling, “Tyranny! Tyranny! Tryanny!”
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius were blasted and booed during a public event in Philadelphia.
As Bennet was meeting with folks in Pueblo, 2nd District Congressman Jared Polis was trying to have one-on-one chats with constituents at Vic’s coffee shop in Boulder. The Democrat’s “Congress on Your Corner” meetings typically drew a dozen or so folks. This drop-in, however, drew several hundred people who wanted information about the proposed health care plan.
In Brighton, 7th District Congressman Ed Perlmutter had planned to have tête-à-têtes with a few grocery shoppers at a King Soopers. But when the Democrat drove into the parking lot, he was stunned to see more than 200 people. The factions at the event — both for and against the current legislation — waved signs and shouted, “Read the bill!” at each other.
Proponents waved signs with such slogans as “Teed-off Teabaggers don’t represent the majority — most Americans want a public option” and “Don’t be a Healthcare Reform Hater!”
Amid the sea of opponents were signs that read “Seniors get your death pill here” and “Just Say No.” One man attached an American flag to his poster that declared, “Hey, Nancy — this not a SWASTIKA.”
The message was a rebuttal to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had responded to a California news reporter’s question about the origins of the “grassroots opposition” to health care reform.
“I think they are Astroturf,” declared Pelosi. “(They’re) carrying swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on health care.”
Her remark became a hot-button comment to fuel anger on conservative talk radio shows around the country.
Rush Limbaugh, who has battled his own health problem in the form of drug addiction, summarized Pelosi’s mental state as “unraveling.”
“She’s basically saying that we are Nazis,” growled Limbaugh during his Aug. 6 radio show.
The following day, CNN delivered proof that Pelosi’s statement wasn’t off the mark. The photo evidence was culled from protest rallies in several states, including two in Colorado.
At the Americans for Prosperity’s “Patients First” bus tour rally in Fort Collins last week, a woman carried a protest sign that featured a swastika with a slash through it and the message, “Say No to Nazis.”
Another slashed swastika adorned a poster that read “No to Fascism” at the anti-public health care rally in Denver on July 28. Behind the poster, which was propped on a stroller, was a baby.
In Colorado Springs last week, KVOR conservative talk radio host Richard Randall railed against health care reform and encouraged his listeners to vent.
A caller named Chuck raged, “Nancy Pelosi is a Botox queen who’s never held a job in her life.” Randall chuckled as he moved on to the next callers.
Silver Salazar, a military veteran from Pueblo, called to report, “They’re bringing that bimbo, what’s her name?”
“Nancy Pelosi,” interjected Randall.
“Yeah,” said Salazar, “She’s coming to Denver to help Jared (Polis) and other Democrats.”
Salazar, who last year stumped for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, promoted the Americans for Prosperity Rally in Pueblo on the radio. He called back the next day to ask protesters to confront Bennet at Jorge’s.
But the meeting room at Jorge’s Restaurant, well out of verbal firing range, was like a peaceful bunker.
Bennet was bolstered by the presence of Pueblo Democrats Sen. Abel Tapia, Reps. Sal Pace and Buffie McFadyen and School District 60 Board President Stephanie Garcia, whose granddaughters, Makylah and Myleigh Garcia, ages 9 and 6, had made “Kids for Bennet” posters.
“When it comes to the folks living in Colorado, we desperately need health care reform,” Bennet said.
He estimated that at least 800,000 Coloradans are uninsured and that more than 70 percent of the uninsured in the nation are working families.
American consumers pay some of the highest prices for prescription drugs in the world, and health care costs have climbed by 80 percent in the past 10 years.
To do nothing — the status quo route — “is completely unacceptable. It’s absolutely unacceptable,” declared Bennet. “Every Coloradan should have access to affordable, quality health care.”
He said families and small businesses that can’t afford the soaring costs of private insurance would benefit from the public option.
Bennet also asserted that even those who are paying high-cost insurance premiums are being denied medical care.
He also expressed concern that insurance companies are the ones who now decide whether people gain access to treatment or are denied coverage because of pre-existing health conditions.
“I’d like our doctors and patients to be making those decisions — not insurance companies and not the government,” Bennet said. “That’s where we need to end up.”
Bennet also noted that health care spending has a negative impact on the economy. He said that the cost of health care accounts for 16 percent of the gross domestic product and will exceed 25 percent in the future — more than any industrialized nation in the world.
“We can’t hope to compete in this global economy,” Bennet said.
Health care reform should keep costs down, Bennet said, and it also should allow people to opt in or retain their private medical care plan. In addition, he hopes that the plan will allow individuals to keep their physician. That, some experts say, is unlikely.
By providing individuals with a public insurance option, Bennet hopes the competition will increase and prices for medical care will fall.
Some voiced concerns about the public health care plan’s position on death for the older citizens — either advocating euthanasia or requiring living wills. One couple said they’d recently paid an attorney several thousand dollars to draw up an ironclad living will.
Bennet clarified that the proposed health care plan does not have a secret “euthanasia” clause. It would, however, offer “end-of-life” consultations and services, including medical treatment, therapy and hospice care.
One man worried about the loss of Medicaid, expressing concern that the cost of a public option would be recovered by scaling back Medicaid and Medicare.
The federal government currently offers Medicare, Medicaid and other programs for eligible children, the elderly, veterans, active military personnel and federal government employees.
If Medicaid is continued and a public health care plan also is adopted, it’s estimated that 10 million uninsured people would be added to the Medicaid rolls. In addition, another 11 million people could participate in the public health care plan.
The Senate will tackle the health care plan issues next month. Several options are up for discussion, including nonprofit health insurance cooperatives, which would be a compromise between a government-funded program and private insurance.
“The question is, ‘Are we going to have the guts as a Congress to pass something that is going to make a meaningful difference in the lives of working people?’” Bennet said.
Although the senator had encouraged folks to ask questions about any issue, he stayed on the health care plan track.
When a woman read from a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution and asked about the constitutionality of government health care, Bennet smiled patiently.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to debate the constitutionality issues, today,” he said.
Later, she joined the protesters outside the restaurant.
Bennet, who was running slightly behind schedule, closed the meeting and chatted with individuals for nearly a half hour.
As he left, security was waved to the side and Bennet dashed into the crowd of angry demonstrators to his waiting SUV — pausing only long enough to debunk a couple of health care myths and encourage the protesters to contact his office.
It had been a contentious, but constructive, visit in Pueblo.
Perlmutter’s appearance in Brighton concluded less happily. Progress Now Colorado issued an e-mail and asked for contributions to offset the insurance deductible to fix staffer Mike Ditto’s car, which, reportedly, had been bashed by health care plan protesters.
“This is absolutely stunning…. The side mirrors were smashed off. Big dent in his hood. And scratches and dents on every door and nearly every other panel of his car. All because he had an SEIU Healthcare Rally flier on his car … Stand up for health care reform today and start by fixin’ Mike’s car!” stated the message signed by Bobby, Alan, Brittney, Jen and Liz.
The repair cost is $3,000.
Bennet’s Pueblo meeting also generated a follow-up e-mail.
He reported in an e-mail that went out two days later that he’d been met by a “self-described mob” protesting the proposed government health care plan and urged recipients to sign a petition backing the plan.
“While we should have a substantive conversation about health care, we cannot back down in the face of these intimidation tactics,” Bennet implored.
According to some activists, the clash over health care reform is déjà vu for Democrats.