Freshman representative Mark Schauer (D-MI) had a grueling schedule last week. He held four town hall meetings in two days to discuss the House's health care reform bill and to answer questions from his constituents. Schauer, who narrowly defeated the very conservative Tim Walberg in 2008, represents a swing district. While the district contains a number of larger cities like Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Jackson it also has an enormous number of rural communities.
I attended the town hall in Jackson, Michigan and came away thoroughly impressed by how this new congressman has matured as a legislator and as a spokesperson for progressive issues.
The town hall was also a very interesting exercise, because anti-reform forces, "Tenthers" (who believe the 10th Amendment allows states to reject health care reform), and hardcore supporters of a single-payer health care system all attended.
I arrived an hour early to the venue and already there were more than twenty cars in the lot. Once inside, the room quickly swelled to capacity with approximately 150 people in attendance. As I walked in, I met a friend from the Obama campaign. He was handing out an information sheet. I was dismayed to find out that he was urging people to ask Rep. Schauer to vote AGAINST the health care bill when it came back to the House. As a single-payer advocate, he felt the bill was not worthy of being passed.
Rep. Schauer convened a panel of specialists at the town hall to help answer questions about health care reform. Erick Schneidewind, state president of the AARP, Erin Knott, Assistant Director of Michigan Citizen Action, and Renee Curtis, an ER nurse representing the United American Nurses Union, all participated.
Rep. Schauer also gave a 10-15 minute Powerpoint presentation that covered the most important aspects of HR 3962.
Rep. Schauer gives a presentation on HR 3962
He then took questions from the audience. This was done in a random fashion. Everyone entering the room was given a name tag with a number and numbers were randomly drawn from a hat.
Based on the questions asked and the applause given, it appeared that the audience was about 1/3 anti-reform people and 2/3 pro-reform. As the questions came in, Rep. Schauer handled them with grace and aplomb. He's clearly very knowledgeable about the bill and was able to easily answer all the questions that came at him about it.
One anti-reformer asked, "Can you tell me what the section covered in pages 1169-1178 has to do with health care?" Amazingly, Rep. Schauer was able to tell her without referring to notes that this section is about home visits to "at risk" kids. The questioner clearly felt that this was not "health care" but Rep. Schauer said, "Well, we either pay now or pay later." In other words, following up on kids in at-risk situations can help prevent them from returning to the medical system later, saving costs and keeping them healthy.
Another questioner said, "I have two questions! First, why weren't these meetings listed on your website?!" It turns out that they were. In addition, they were announced in the newspapers throughout the district, and Rep. Schauer also appeared on a radio show to announce them. The questioner went on to ask if the audience was stacked since Rep. Schauer knew so many audience members by name. "I know people by name because I spend so much time in Jackson!" was his reply. Indeed, his state office is in Jackson.
Another woman got up to say she was from Canada and went on and on about how horrible things are there and how health care reform was the worst possible course of action. All of the anti-reform people stood up to cheer and clap.
Rep. Schauer thanked her for her statement. He told the audience that he is opposed to a single-payer system in general and that he's for improving the AMERICAN system we have now, not completely changing it.
In addition to the combative questions, there were many folks that stood up to thank him for his efforts as well as to ask about specific elements of the House bill. Again, Rep. Schauer came across as knowledgeable and informed. He said he had read the entire bill and it was clear that he had.
Afterwards, a minister at the church where the event was held got up to say a few closing words. His name is Russell Davis and in addition to his ministering duties, he's also the athletic director of Jackson High School as well as the principal of the 11th grade. He's best known for being a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I want to thank you all for participating," Davis told the crowd. "This was healthy what happened here today. I know I learned some things and I'm sure you did, too."
After the event, Rep. Schauer shook hands with folks and answered questions one-on-one. Although many of the folks were intent on giving him a hard time, he continued to answer their complaints with reasonable words and informed knowledge of the bill.
Rep. Schauer answers questions of an anti-reform constituent
The event was a huge success. Rep. Schauer's staff handled the crowd well. Prohibiting ALL signs kept the event from becoming a complete clown show. The random nature of the question-taking ensured that nobody could accuse them of cherry-picking. And, most importantly, Rep. Schauer's vast knowledge of the legislation allowed him to answer all the questions that came at him, whether they were hostile or not.
It's clear that his ten months in office have already sharpened his skills when it comes to dealing with his constituents and this promising progressive Democrat is gaining confidence while becoming a more effective as a political leader.