AFTON, Iowa — Peggy Erskine used a half-day of her vacation time to give Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) a piece of her mind on health care reform; and she wasn’t alone.
Erskine, a 61-year-old factory worker, was one of about 2,000 people who showed up Wednesday at one of four of Grassley’s town-hall meetings across central Iowa farm country. And like many of her counterparts, Erskine had a message for the Iowa Republican, a key health care negotiator: Stop President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats from enacting their health care plans.
“When 9/11 happened, I was very terrified. But I honestly am more terrified now. Then, I thought my government was going to protect me, and now I’m afraid of my government. We have the car industry [being] taken over, the banks were taken over, and now I feel our health care. And I think we have — we’re leaning toward socialism, and that scares me to death,— Erskine told Grassley to enthusiastic applause from most of the 300 who packed the Methodist church in Afton, after the large turnout forced the event to move from the town’s small City Hall.
“The true root of the problem in health care reform is distrust of the United States Congress,— 66-year-old Mike Brentnall, the administrator of a medical clinic, added in an interview following the event. Afton is located in Union County, which is dominated by conservative Democrats.
In the sweltering summer heat, Iowans turned out to talk health care with Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, who has worked for several months to fashion a bipartisan reform bill with the panel’s chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). In four Iowa farming communities — Adel, Afton, Panora and Winterset — Grassley met overflow crowds that would make any presidential caucus candidate jealous.
The town-hall-goers, composed largely of middle-aged and elderly conservatives, were mostly civil but far from shy. Many came armed with prewritten questions and homemade signs, and most of them had plenty to say. No one left early, despite the 90-degree heat that greeted attendees at the two outdoor events in Winterset and Adel, and the sauna-like conditions at the indoor gatherings in Afton and Panora.
“I believe nationalized medicine is actually another tax,— said one of the nearly 1,000 who participated in Grassley’s town-hall meeting in the Dallas County community of Adel. That event was moved from the public library to a park to accommodate the large crowd. Dallas County is among the fast-growing Republican regions in the state and among the top 10 counties for GOP growth in the nation.
“Balance the Budget; No-Bama Care,— read a sign held by one person in Panora, where almost 500 filled the town community center. Panora is located in Guthrie County, a Republican-leaning area with a solid share of conservative Democrats.
Grassley’s back-to-back town halls didn’t lack drama, but none featured the violent outbursts or physical altercations that some Members have experienced this recess. The town halls have served as ground zero for a frustrated electorate, and questions have arisen over whether — and to what degree — the forum’s participants are organized by Obama opponents.
For Grassley, who is up for re-election in 2010, the applause lines were consistent throughout all four of Wednesday’s events.
When Grassley said he was opposed to a public insurance option; when he vowed to vote against a health care bill cleared by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a party-line vote; when he promised to oppose legislation supported by House Democratic leaders; when he said he won’t support any Senate Finance Committee compromise that expands Washington’s reach; and when he pushed for tort reform, the cheers were almost deafening.
Iowa’s senior Senator is no stranger to town-hall meetings. Grassley visits all 99 Hawkeye State counties every year; he estimated that after Wednesday’s events he’d held 2,846 such forums since he was first elected to the Senate in 1980. But Grassley was nevertheless a little surprised by the reaction he received from constituents at Wednesday’s gatherings.
“There’s more unanimity of opinion against doing anything, than what I thought. And, the intensity is greater than I expected,— Grassley said during a brief interview with Roll Call.
Grassley has a long history of bipartisanship, both as a member of the majority and the minority, and his record of political compromise is one he is fond of touting. He and Baucus have sided together numerous times on legislation, sometimes meeting the ire of their own parties.
But in Grassley’s opening statements at the four town-hall meetings and in comments during the ensuing question-and-answer sessions, he made clear where he stood.
“I’m not going to do anything that’s going to nationalize health care in America,— Grassley said in Afton.
A few dissenting voices were heard Wednesday.
In Adel, an elderly man wearing an Obama baseball cap, who said he supports the president but has also donated to and voted for Grassley in past elections, asked the Senator to reconsider his opposition to the public insurance option, as did some others at the each of the town halls. In Panora, a self-described Democrat asked Grassley to dispel Republican misinformation about the Democrats’ health care proposals.
In Afton, a complaint about excessive insurance company profits and high premiums received a healthy applause.
In Winterset, a community in Republican-leaning Madison County, Kate Bason carried a two-sided, homemade sign that read “Public Option; Reform Now.— The 50-something environmental inspector said in an interview that Grassley isn’t the straight-talking Senator she remembers from years past.
During the town hall Bason attended, she did her best to rebut concerns of the mostly conservative audience about the “government takeover— of the health care system — a worry that many expressed that day.
“I’d like to hear the truth,— Bason said before the Winterset town hall. “I’d like to know how [Grassley] thinks that health care for profit can ever work — the motive is wrong. I’d like him to explain that. And I would certainly like to hear why he keeps pushing the Republican agenda that this is all about the government taking over everybody’s rights. It’s absurd. I’d like to hear him explain why he’s reading the Republican memos instead of being the straight thinker that he’s always been.—