Last fall, one-term U.S. Representative Tim Walberg was defeated in a hotly contested race in Michigan's 7th Congressional District. As I wrote in a Huffington Post piece published in October, Walberg, who held a significant lead during most of the campaign, eventually lost his seat to Democrat Mark Schauer, despite receiving an enormous amount of financial support from the ultra-conservative Club For Growth.
Although right now he actually holds no public office whatsoever, Walberg has been holding health care town hall meetings over the past two weeks anyway.
Mr. Walberg recently announced that he intends to challenge Rep. Schauer again in 2010, over 14 months from now.
Walberg held his town hall meetings in areas where he can count on solid support in the next election -- Hillsdale, Marshall, Jackson, and Adrian -- avoiding more liberal communities near Ann Arbor and Lansing.
When asked in an interview with vocal Schauer critic Terry Jacoby of the Heritage Newspapers what his biggest obstacles would be in getting back to Washington, D.C., Walberg had this to say:
Left-wing groups such as Moveon.org, the National Council of La Raza and Speaker Nancy Pelosi's DCCC spent millions in the last campaign. These far-left attack groups are willing to say anything to defend their big government allies like Mark Schauer, so these politicians can continue spending trillions we don't have, have the federal government takeover health care, and enact energy taxes that would further damage our economy and raise utility rates.
This is an odd statement from a man that received over $1 million from the Club For Growth in his successful 2006 race against Republican Joe Schwarz and who was heavily financed by them again in 2008. The 2008 election saw the two candidates spend a combined total of nearly $3.5 million, making it one of the most expensive House races that year. I have been unable to find any evidence at all that the National Council of La Raza had any role in Walberg's defeat.
Many Schauer supporters see Walberg's town hall meetings as a crass use of the health care debate to launch his 2010 campaign. At his meetings, Walberg's supporters decry Rep. Schauer for not holding meetings of his own, despite the fact that Republican Congressmen from Michigan such as Mike Rogers have not and that Rep. Schauer has, in fact, held a number of public events this summer. Also, during the summer break, Schauer has been meeting with constituents in smaller groups with less chance for disruption by anti-health reform protesters who have all but shut down dialog and discussion at other events across the state and nation. (Examples here, here, and here).
Last night the final Walberg meeting was held in Marshall. The event, originally scheduled to be held at the Kellogg Community College (KCC) in Battle Creek, was moved to Marshall after KCC officials canceled, citing security concerns:
KCC President Ed Haring said he made the decision to cancel the meeting Monday morning after consulting with his executive leadership team. The college's Board of Trustees was not involved, he said. "We know that these kinds of community events around health care have been volatile at times, and we knew that some time ago," Haring said. "On top of that, we were led to believe that arrangements had been made with local law enforcement. We discovered they were not aware of the forum."
Construction on the campus also complicated security for the event, Haring said.
Walberg's campaign staff blamed the cancellation in Battle Creek on "politically motivated" Democrats on the KCC president's council board.
Sherry Swann, a volunteer for Walberg who reserved the Binda Performing Arts Center for Wednesday's meeting, said she had written a letter to the Battle Creek Police Department and was hoping to confirm the department's presence on Monday.
Swann said she felt the decision was politically motivated and made by "Democrats on the president's council board."
The meeting was attended by approximately 150 people, who were predominantly over the age of 50 and all white. Although far fewer offensive signs and t-shirts were in evidence at this event than have been seen at other events in Michigan (like here and here), there were a handful to be seen nonetheless. Signs warning of "Obamacare" euthanizing the elderly and a picture of President Barack Obama with his face made up like The Joker from Batman with the word "Socialist" across the bottom were displayed while someone passed around sheets showing a picture of a "tobacco smoke enema kit" said to have been found in Rep. Schauer's office.
Walberg started the meeting with some opening remarks that included a veiled reference to citizens not being forced to pay for or participate in things they find ethically or morally objectionable. When someone in the audience asked what he meant, he said "things like abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and even vaccination." In a room full of military veterans, nobody asked if anti-war protesters should also be freed from their responsibility to fund wars through their taxes.
For just over an hour, a steady stream of people went to the front to speak. Only a small handful of questions were actually asked. Rather, most of those who took the podium elected to make short speeches decrying the health care reform legislation before Congress and to take shots at Rep. Schauer. The comments showed that this mostly aged group of citizens is quite frightened of being killed (or at least allowed to die of their illnesses) by the Obama Administration. Many talked about how fabulous their private coverage is even though the current legislation would not take that from them. They spoke of their fears of rationed health care and of long lines and waits to be treated.
One woman claimed that the bill says that if you have private health insurance and "make any change at all, even changing your deductable," you will be kicked off and will default to government insurance.
Another speaker concluded his comments by saying, "We don't need socialist health care in this country! I remember when we used to say 'Better Dead Than Red!'" apparently unaware that he had confused socialism and communism in the space of two consecutive sentences.
Finally, one young woman declared that she was from Canada and had "first hand knowledge" of how terrible the health care system is there, though she moved to the USA when she was a child. "The city of Grand Rapids has ten MRI machines," she declared. "There are only ten in ALL of Ontario!" The fact that this is completely false and is off by a factor of ten or more did not seem to matter at all to most in the audience who cheered loudly as she left the front of the room.
Not all speakers were against the current health care reform legislation. One young man, clearly nervous but still determined to say his piece, said that, although he was young and didn't have the experience of many people in the room, he still thought that universal health care coverage should be something we should all want. In a country as great as this one, he said, we should be able to figure out how to make sure all Americans are covered so that we can reduce costs and keep everyone healthy.
I personally asked Mr. Walberg if he stood behind a statement he made last year that "right now everybody in the United State has some health care, maybe even the emergency room...everyone can walk in an emergency room and receive basic health care" and, if so, was he aware that this was a significant reason for the rising health care costs for everyone? He stood by his statement, asking the crowd, "Do you know anybody that has been turned away from a local hospital?" His solution to the rising costs involves expanding something he referred to as "the patient-centered health care approach":
I agree with you [that everyone's costs are high because people use emergency rooms in this way]. My contention is is that if we expand the patient-centered health care approach, we'll have less people that have to go the medical clinic that provides free service or go to the emergency room - they can have their own health care plan.
His description of these approaches early in the session, however, did not explain how they would lower costs or ensure everyone would be covered.
There was one very noticeable difference in the comments heard at Walberg's Marshall meeting. Starting with Walberg himself and then from nearly every other speaker that night came one common theme: "Everyone agrees we need to reform health care." This is quite different from rhetoric coming from conservatives even just last spring.
One of the last speakers of the evening asked the audience how many people there had Medicare. The gray-haired woman next to me answered, "We don't have any choice!" I leaned over and asked her, "Well you could pay cash, right?"
In a moment of stunning irony, she looked at me and said, "On what the government gives ME every month???"