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The roots of rage at a town hall meeting

More than 1,000 people showed up for a Pennsylvania meeting with Senator Arlen Specter, and like many such meetings, it was punctuated with rowdy moments.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., right, listens to Katy Abram, left, ask a question as the crowd reacts during a town hall meeting open to the public on Tuesday in Lebanon, Pa.Bradley C Bower / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

They got up before dawn in large numbers with angry signs and American flag T-shirts, and many were seething with frustration at issues that went far beyond overhauling health care.

More than 1,000 people showed up here Tuesday morning in this largely Republican town in central Pennsylvania for a town-hall-style meeting with Senator Arlen Specter, though the auditorium could seat only 250. Like many of the dozens of such meetings held by members of Congress over the last few weeks, this one was punctuated with rowdy moments, and interviews with many of those who showed up made it clear just how much underlying dissent motivated them.

Many said the Obama administration’s plans for a new health care system were just another example of a federal government that had again gone too far, just as it had, they said, with the economic stimulus, the auto industry bailout and the cap-and-trade program.

“This is about the dismantling of this country,” Katy Abram, 35, shouted at Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause. “We don’t want this country to turn into Russia.”

Ms. Abram described herself as a stay-at-home mother from Lebanon, and in many ways she was representative of the almost entirely white and irritable crowd, most of whom were from the area. Based on interviews with several dozen people who attended, it appeared that about 80 percent of those who showed up opposed the planned changes to the health care system.

Many said they heard about the meeting from e-mail alerts sent by conservative and antitax groups like the Constitutional Organization of Liberty and the Berks County Tea Party, along with Mr. Specter’s own mailings. Some voiced sentiments that were heard recently on conservative radio shows, though those interviewed said they resented being characterized as mobs or puppets of lobbyists, emphasizing that they represented only themselves. “I demand my voice!” read one sign outside. “You work for me,” was a refrain yelled inside the auditorium.

At the same time, those who favor a health care overhaul, urged to attend by unions and liberal groups like the Service Employees International Union and Health Care for America Now, said they were motivated by concern that the government might not go far enough. Only the government, they say, can take on a problem as big as health care.

But in the end, their ability to ask a question at the meeting depended on how early they got in line. Many of the union members who showed up to support health care reform did not arrive early enough to get into the auditorium at the Harrisburg Area Community College, and thus were largely not represented among the 30 questioners called on by Mr. Specter. It was the angriest people who got in line first.

“All union members to the back, I got here early,” one man in the line told latecomers.

John Stahl, chairman of the Berks County Tea Party, a local branch of conservatives, was one of those who helped recruit opponents of change to the event. A former truck salesman, Mr. Stahl, 65, said he was laid off about 18 months ago. Since May, his group has organized four protests in the state opposing taxes and the stimulus plan, but none have attracted the crowds like health care, he said.

“We believe there are several issues out there that leave the existence of the Republic at risk,” he added, “not the least of which is this Obamacare.”

The meeting came just over a week after Mr. Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius were booed and jeered at a meeting in Philadelphia on Aug. 3.

Hoping to avoid similar unrest, Mr. Specter tried to control the event by imposing a rigid format. Only the first 30 people who wanted to speak were given cards allowing them to ask questions. He allotted 90 minutes for the meeting and was careful to let people speak their piece. He gave succinct answers before moving on to the next question. Because of concerns about a potentially unruly crowd, the Capitol Police sent three extra officers from Washington.

In addition, Mr. Specter and his staff controlled the microphones. And he stood face to face with his questioners, a move, he said later in an interview, that he had hoped might make it harder for people to scream at him.

But for all his efforts, tempers boiled over 15 minutes into the meeting. Standing two feet from the senator, Craig Anthony Miller, 59, shouted, “You are trampling on our Constitution!” A half-dozen security people quickly swarmed but refrained from touching him as Mr. Specter, raising his voice, said sternly, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” He said the man had the right to leave.

Mr. Miller, shaking, stood his ground. He said he was furious that the senator’s staff had limited the questioning. “One day,” he said to loud applause, “God is going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you!”

Mr. Specter shouted into his microphone that demonstrators disrupting the proceedings would be thrown out.

The meetings come at a vulnerable moment for Mr. Specter, who faces what could be a tight Democratic primary next spring. While those on the right excoriated him at the meeting for betrayal because he switched parties in April, he has also been attacked by his opponent in the primary, Representative Joe Sestak, as being a Republican aligned with former President George W. Bush.

But most of those who spoke Tuesday seemed unlikely to vote in the Democratic primary. Many seemed concerned about issues that are either not in the health care legislation or are peripheral to the debate in Washington — abortion, euthanasia, coverage of immigrants, privacy.

“It says plainly right there they want to limit the type of care elderly can get,” said Laurel Tobias, an office manager from Lebanon, referring to a bill in the House. “They are talking about killing people.”

Standing by a bus that takes her from meeting to meeting, Amy Menefee, spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity, said the real issue was the expansion of government favored by President Obama. Proponents of the overhaul voiced the opposite fear, also citing larger issues at stake.

“This isn’t just about health care,” said Carolyn Doric of Harrisburg, “it’s about political power and a means to regain political power.” Ms. Doric did not get into the meeting.

Sean D. Hamill contributed reporting.

This article, "The roots of rage at a town hall meeting," first appeared in The New York Times.