House Speaker Pelosi puts Denver center stage

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

The national health care debate landed in Denver last week as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toured a downtown health clinic operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless with Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette, of Denver, and Jared Polis, of Boulder.

The highly publicized visit, which kept members of the press at arm’s length as the lawmakers toured the facility, was met outside by hundreds of demonstrators representing both sides of the health care reform debate.

Speaker Pelosi speaks to reporters after touring a Denver health clinic for the homeless last week as Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, listens.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Holding signs, singing songs and chanting slogans, the mostly peaceful demonstrators intermittently became supercharged as their emotions overtook them.

“You can’t tell me that you have read the bill if you think it’s a good idea!” shouted one man who would identify himself only as “Bob,” addressing a group of health care reform supporters. “I won’t let you and your idiot friends in Congress take over my country and kill my elderly mother because she has become to expensive to care for!”

On the other side of the issue, reform supporters carried signs favoring a public option and called their opponents uncaring and selfish.

“You only care about yourselves and would rather see uninsured people die than have a country with our resources find ways to care for them!” one woman who refused to be identified shouted to a man as she held her young daughter’s hand. “You make me sick!”

During Pelosi’s short question and answer session inside the Stout Street Clinic, the speaker said protesters won’t keep Democrats in Congress from passing legislation designed to offer insurance to the 47 million Americans who are without coverage today.

“What you see, I think, is a display of the democratic process,” Pelosi said when asked by reporters for her reaction to the demonstration outside the clinic and to similar protests around the country. “We all respect that.”

The protests are part of a larger national Republican effort to weaken public support for the administration-backed health care plan through sometimes angry public demonstrations. Hoping to offset their message, Democratic supporters are showing up at the same events to demonstrate in favor of the plan. Like their counterparts, Democratic supporters often give way to their anger.

While in Denver, Pelosi said she was in favor of Congress bringing the House plan back to constituents during the August recess in order to get feedback, and she has instructed Democrats to hold town hall meetings to gather support for the reform.

That stands in contrast to a message she and President Barack Obama sent weeks ago, instructing Congress to pass health care reform legislation before the August recess.

Pelosi also tried to dispel the notion that infighting among congressional Democrats is stalling the legislation. Ironically, the statements came as Polis — who wrote a letter to Pelosi two weeks ago opposing a tax increase on wealthy Americans to pay for the plan — stood only feet from her.

“Do we have a diversity of opinion? Yes,” Pelosi said. “But we do not have a split in the party.”

The debate gets hotter almost daily.

In Colorado, DeGette, a longtime supporter of a public option in health care reform, avoided a predictable shouting match by holding a town hall meeting as a teleconference the night Pelosi was in Denver.

Hundreds of people line the intersection of Broadway and Stout street in Denver to demonstrate for and against the proposed health care reform legislation moving through Congress.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Although during her call, DeGette took questions from people — some from outside her district — who didn’t support the Democrats’ plan, the phone conference nipped any chance for opponents to make a public scene during the forum.

Polis, who held a “Congress on Your Corner” event at a Boulder coffee shop last weekend, was unable to avoid the masses, as DeGette did.

As he sat at a table and tried to talk to constituents one-on-one, Polis found more than a hundred people looking for a chance to voice their support or discontent with Congress’ plan. The event, which Polis staffers said brought out more of a crowd than they anticipated, ended before most of the attendees could talk with Polis. His staff took names and phone numbers and promised that the freshman lawmaker would contact everyone by phone to discuss the issue.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Polis’ fellow Democrat in 7th Congressional District, held a “Government at Your Grocery” event at a King Soopers in Brighton last weekend and
encountered a mass of protesters opposing the Democratic health care plan.

Standing at a podium and speaking through a microphone, Perlmutter thanked the crowd of a couple hundred people for coming out.

“I just want to thank everybody for turning out today and sharing your opinions on everything,” Perlmutter said. “Thank you for doing your civic duty. I want to thank King Soopers for (holding this) event. Please go out and buy something from King Soopers (today) as well as all of the other businesses here in town.”

While Perlmutter was trying to encourage people to shop locally in Brighton, a protester yelled, “We can’t afford to (shop), thanks to your health care plan!”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey will be holding a number of August meetings in her 4th Congressional District that also are sure to draw protesting crowds.

Although her office has not released details about the meetings, Markey is planning a series of “Congress on you Corner” stops as well as roundtable discussions centering on health care reform and other issues.

The style of public outreach Markey is adopting this recess is true to her political form, spokesman Ben Marter said.

“This is her job,” Marter told The Colorado Statesman. “Betsy has, from day one, had a focus on constituent services. And, given the size of this issue … she is taking it to the people. She works for them.”

Recent health care rallies in Fort Collins may foreshadow Markey’s events.

The Fort Collins events have brought people from both sides of the issue to the city’s Old Town district for heated exchanges, including one Tuesday that turned physical as two women briefly brawled.

Colorado Republican Chair Dick Wadhams said the demonstrations and protests are proof that Pelosi and Obama brought a “failed plan” to the American public.

“I think this health care plan, among other issues, are taking their toll on President Obama and Speaker Pelosi,” Wadhams said during a press call last week. “It will raise taxes on the middle class, does cut Medicare, increases the debt and will destroy the private health insurance industry as we know it.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com