By Ellen Miller
WESTERN SLOPE CORRESPONDENT
GRAND JUNCTION — On Friday, Aug. 15, the Associated Press was estimating that “the visit by President Barack Obama to Grand Junction could draw thousands of protesters.” But crowds fell far short of estimates, and Saturday dawned on a peaceful city.
“It was a very successful event,” said Heather Benjamin, spokeswoman for Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey. “We were prepared for the worst estimates, but none of it transpired. Things couldn’t have gone better.”
She said the largest group congregated near Central High School, site of the president’s town hall meeting, where demonstrators were kept some 500 yards away from the building along Warrior Way.
An estimated 1,000 people, divided roughly equally between pro and con, lined each side of the street hoping to catch Obama’s eye when his motorcade went past.
One side chanted, “Yes, we can!” The other chanted, “No, you can’t!”
But Obama and his party were taken into the high school parking lot through another entrance, and once the demonstrators realized it, most departed.
About 200 law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies were on hand. There were no incidents and no arrests.
A “Hands Off My Health Care” rally, promoted by a raft of conservative groups, drew a mostly calm crowd of perhaps 800 people to Lincoln Park, according to police estimates.
Sponsors of the anti-Obama rally included demonstrators representing Responsible Health Care Reform, Tea Party and 9/12er conservatives, Americans for Prosperity and the Western Slope Conservative Alliance. Earlier in the week, organizers said 3,500 to 4,000 people would take part, but the crowd fell far short.
“There was the Palisade Peach Festival, a free day at the (Colorado National) Monument and everything else everybody does on summer weekends,” Benjamin said.
Many in Lincoln Park brought homemade signs, and those who didn’t could get them on site. Some proclaimed “Hands Off My Health Care,” and others suggested “JoinPatientsFirst.com.”
One sign read “Born free but taxed to death.” Others compared Obama’s proposal to Hitler’s extermination of European Jews. A smattering of other homemade efforts included “Real health care respects life,” “Hope — Change –Pork,” and “Salazar: Be a patriot, not a politician. Vote No on ObamaCare.”
State Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita — a GOP candidate for governor — led off the speeches, decrying the “top-down Washington-based health care system” promoted by Obama.
“The American people are rejecting government-run health care,” he said. “We do not want socialized medicine.”
U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, urged tort reform, portable health insurance and not putting “a government bureaucrat” between doctors and patients.
“This is for CNN,” Chaffetz prompted the crowd. “Do you want Obama care?”
“NO!” the crowd shouted back.
A man in the crowd later said to Chaffetz, “You tell (Obama) that he’s a spoiled brat and he’s already spent his allowance.” The man declined to identify himself.
Pro-Obama demonstrators began gathering at the high school shortly after noon. A small musical group played and water was distributed as temperatures soared toward 91 degrees.
Christina Hoagland, of Grand Junction, an occupational therapist who has a brain-injury disability that prevents her from working more than 20 hours a week, said she supported the president’s health care reform, “because as it stands now, I can’t get health insurance. And you’d be amazed how many people I see can’t afford it or can’t get it, either.
“People eat organic, take vitamins and hope for the best,” she said. “If you absolutely need to go in, you take it out of savings. Our yearly checkup is the 9News Health Fair.”
As he waited in the line for ticket-holders, Sam Trainor, of Fruita, said his job allows him to have insurance “because the individual is affordable. But to cover my family is out of reach. I don’t envy the president at all. He’s inherited 50 years worth of junk.”
“Nobody’s happy,” Trainor said. “Even people on Social Security and Medicare think it’s not government. It’s scary. A friend’s son broke his elbow, and it was $38,000.”