Aug 23, 2009 21 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
â€œI go to church. I hear it at church. Theyâ€™re just afraid. They donâ€™t trust this administration,â€
MARIANNA, Fla. â€” Rep Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) is a skilled politician who has pretty much seen it all â€” a Deep South Democrat whoâ€™s managed to dispatch all opponents in his conservative-leaning Panhandle district since winning election in 1996.
But as he fended off gnats buzzing through the August humidity after a morning fending off angry constituents at a town hall meeting here, Boyd confided that the depth of the unease spurred by the health care debate had caught him by surprise.
â€œThey may be in a minority, but they are a larger minority than weâ€™ve seen in the 20-plus years that Iâ€™ve been doing this,â€ said Boyd of the standing-room-only crowds who have been showing up to shout, boo, mutter and, in one case, hand him an actual stack of pink slips since he returned home for recess. â€œIâ€™ve never seen anything like this.â€
The overhyped and in many cases fraudulent sense of grass-roots fervor during an August Democrats would like to forget is easy to minimize. But for all the cries of Astroturf fakery and ginned-up crowds, a ground zero view in a district like Boydâ€™s underlines that a very real sense of anger and frustration is bubbling over as summer wanes.
A visit to Floridaâ€™s 2nd District also is a bracing case study in the mounting political peril some Blue Dogs like Boyd may be facing. Boyd acknowledged that after coasting to victory in a string of elections, including when a popular President George W. Bush was on top of the ticket in 2004 and national Republicans actively plotted his ouster, he may face a real threat next year at the polls.
And his candor is borne out of his own up-close view from the past three weeks. While some of his colleagues took refuge in constituent-free codels and undisclosed private meetings, Boyd plunged headlong into a series of public forums throughout his district and discovered the sort of public unrest that doesnâ€™t come around very often.
â€œPeople are scared,â€ Boyd said twice, trying to explain what would drive his constituents away from home and work and out into the broiling Florida sun in the middle of the week to see their congressman.
Itâ€™s health care that has spurred the now-familiar images of conservatives protesting and interrupting town hall meetings during this summer of discontent. But two days of witnessing town hall meetings in north Florida small towns also made clear that the issue is only the spark behind a host of resentments and anxieties.
The disquiet among conservatives and some independents began with the collapse of the economy and subsequent bailouts last fall. It increased with the election of President Barack Obama and then spiked after he took office. The shorthand, heard here repeatedly and always in disgust, usually includes references to: stimulus, more bailouts, bonuses, cap and trade and now health care.
John Webb, a retiree from the small village of Woods, said after a Boyd town hall meeting in the county seat town of Bristol that he thought the country is headed in the wrong direction â€” and he wasnâ€™t alone.
â€œI go to church. I hear it at church. Theyâ€™re just afraid. They donâ€™t trust this administration,â€ Webb said.
Exactly why is tougher to pin down, but it often returns to the same litany, a mix of conservative and populist frustrations. Webb cited the stimulus before wondering in his next breath: â€œI donâ€™t understand how a company can fail and then the head of that company gets a $3 or $4 million bonus.â€
Observed Randy Mackey, a former Democratic state legislator from nearby Lake City who came to Boydâ€™s Bristol meeting: â€œThey think, â€˜I didnâ€™t get a stimulus package, nobody bailed me out.â€™ â€
While Boydâ€™s district includes the student and state worker-filled city of Tallahassee â€” a Democratic enclave â€” much of it is rural and deeply conservative, indistinguishable from nearby south Georgia and Alabama. This is the Florida where pine trees meet palms, the convenience stores sell live bait and sweet tea is always an option.
Add in Republican-leaning retirees and locals in Gulf towns such as Panama City, and it makes for tough terrain for a Democrat who is more moderate than his national party.
Boyd has made his standing more difficult by voting for the stimulus and the energy bill â€” or as one local derided the latter at the town hall in Marianna: â€œtap-and-crap.â€
Now heâ€™s faced with what may be one of the most consequential votes of his congressional career. On the left, Boyd faces a primary challenge from an African-American state senator from Tallahassee who is already calling health care a top issue.
And on the right heâ€™s staring at the likes of Francis Kellison of Marianna, a Republican who said he had previously supported Boyd.
But Kellison â€” who thinks Obama is a â€œradicalâ€ â€” said now he may vote against the incumbent.
â€œI donâ€™t like health care, I donâ€™t like cap and trade, I didnâ€™t approve of the bailout bills,â€ he explained after the meeting in his hometown.
Boyd, a farmer and former state senator, is the picture of the charming Southern pol, quick to place his hand on a shoulder and faster still to repeat the first name of the person heâ€™s talking to.
He has used these skills to keep his town hall meetings, though spirited, free of the sort of vitriolic rancor that has taken place elsewhere.
â€œPeople in north Florida are polite and courteous,â€ he said by way of reminder at the start of the Marianna meeting. â€œWe’re going to show the rest of the country a little bit about Southern hospitality and Southern manners.â€
Just in case playing on regional sensibilities didnâ€™t work, Boyd also took the precautionary step of having his questioners walk to the front of the room, introduce themselves and then stand next to him both for their questions and his answers all while he held the microphone like a genial game show host.
â€œOne of the things Iâ€™ve learned in life is if I get up close to you and know you better, Iâ€™m less likely to yell at you,â€ he shared afterward about his strategy.
And in a district with a significant population of seniors, retired military and state workers, Boyd also slyly reminded many of his constituents that they were already dependent on the dreaded state for their health care coverage. He did this by asking every questioner what their health care plan was until one man in Marianna wised up to the technique and pre-emptively said it wasnâ€™t any of the congressmanâ€™s business.
So Boyd prevented any YouTube moments, but the civility was often strained. He frequently had to hold his finger to his lip to hush the crowds as scowling sheriff’s deputies and police officers looked on.
At events in Bristol and Marianna, the crowds were overwhelmingly composed of those opposed to health care reform and wary of government in general. And in a district that is more than 20 percent African-American, the audiences were also overwhelmingly white.
Veteran politician that he is, Boyd had answers at the ready for all the familiar questions.
No, he said when it was brought up four separate times in Bristol, illegal immigrants wonâ€™t get government health care in the new legislation.
On the stimulus, he noted the infusion of local dollars to bolster school budgets and pay for infrastructure ($24 million alone for Mariannaâ€™s Jackson County).
As for the energy bill, he recalled last summerâ€™s soaring gas prices to make the point that something has to be done before segueing into the benefits the legislation would have for rural electric co-ops (Boydâ€™s own father, he made sure to point out, offered up a right of way on their family farm to help electrify their county).
These answers didnâ€™t allay the restive crowds, nor did his response on health care. Boyd repeatedly cited four principles on health care â€” choice, reduce overall costs, offer access to the uninsured and deficit neutrality â€” but wouldnâ€™t go much further.
But he did reflect the increasing unease of moderate Democrats with the issue, in Marianna holding up hefty H.R. 3200 â€” the primary bill in the House â€” and proclaiming to applause that he would not support it as is.
He also told crowds that the public option was probably unlikely, that he would prefer the process to slow down and was open to a more incremental approach.
And in an effort at reassurance in Marianna, he urged the audience to pay attention to the Senate Finance Committee, the only relevant committee in either chamber that has yet to move a bill and the one that is most inclined toward a centrist approach.
â€œWherever we end up will be more like what they’re doing, anyway,â€ Boyd said.
While eyebrow-raising to a visitor from Washington, such comments mattered little to a crowd that included the likes of Jim Peacock, a retired Secret Service agent from Grand Ridge.
â€œWe donâ€™t want the government in our health care, period,â€ Peacock said, before allowing that he was OK with Medicare and Medicaid only to take care of the elderly.
There were proponents of reform, including Louis Hatos, a retired technology worker for the state whose monthly premiums have soared to $1,127 a month â€” over half the amount of his pension.
â€œI want to know what in the world theyâ€™re going to do about reining in the cost of health insurance,â€ Hatos complained on his way out of the Bristol meeting, where his raised hand never got Boydâ€™s attention.
With a mix of frustration and resignation, Hatos shook his head when asked about fellow citizens who were more interested in illegal immigrants getting access than their own struggles with coverage.
â€œIgnorance,â€ was his explanation. â€œTheyâ€™re on Medicare, theyâ€™re at the VA.â€
But the voices of Hatos were, often literally, drowned out by opponents, some of whom who came to vent.
â€œThey want to take over our life,â€ insisted Elaine Thompson just minutes before she shoved a stack of signed pink slips and a copy of the Constitution in Boydâ€™s hands.
Wearing a shirt that read â€œConcerned American Patriotsâ€ on the front and â€œWake Up Americaâ€ on the back, Thompson, of Marianna, said the White House was being run using â€œChicago terrorism.â€
â€œSaul Salinsky is their mentor,â€ she replied when asked to explain what she meant, misstating the name of leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky, who is often cited by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. â€œThey are controlling whatâ€™s happening in this country.â€
After his summer recess, Allen Boyd may disagree.