Broward News

Wasserman Schultz Town Hall an Ugly Night for Democracy

I can't imagine a single person who was present at last night's town hall meeting by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz who would say the event was productive or worthwhile. The opponents of health-care reform and the Democratic Congress showed no interest in a dialogue; they just wanted to scream.

The hatred extended to anyone else in the room who supported Wasserman Schultz, like a blond woman whose name was selected randomly during the Q&A session. That woman, Marjorie, who was in favor of health-care reform, began by explaining how earlier in the evening when she was called upon to speak, she had forgotten her question. The woman said she suffered from short-term memory loss.

"Oh, come on!" hissed an elderly woman several rows back, who opposed the reform. (You can't hear it in the video above, but I could hear it from where I was standing on the other side of the room.)

Marjorie described how she'd been struggling to get health-care coverage in the years since the accident that caused the memory loss -- while working as special education teacher, a student threw a metal ball, hitting the blond woman in the head.

"Good!" declared the elderly woman, apparently pleased to learn of Marjorie's becoming disabled.

A majority of the crowd in Fort Lauderdale's city chambers was in favor of health-care reform, at least judging by the applause. But that only made for more chaos with the deafening minority that was opposed. Wasserman Schultz would make a statement, a tea party-type would scoff or yell out, and then supporters of the congresswoman would get into arguments with that tea partier.

Those who wished to ask Wasserman Schultz a question were invited to put it on an index card, then file it in one of three boxes: supporting the Democratic Congress, neutral, or opposed. The congresswoman was to alternate among the three.

Except that nearly every person who claimed to be neutral was not. So for every question by a supporter, the congresswoman fielded two questions from people who had very clearly made up their minds that she was the enemy.

One man whose card was pulled from the box of neutrals declared: "I will try to get you fired. I will try to get [the health-care reform] bill repealed." And then, as if just remembering the ground rule that all speakers are to ask a question rather than make a statement, the man added: "What will you do then?"

"Sounds very neutral," said Wasserman Schultz dryly. "Obviously, I'm against repeal."

Very little accomplished in that exchange.

A woman from Plantation rose to ask Wasserman Schultz, "Can you defend the dirty deals on health-care reform?"

"There were certainly no such 'dirty deals,'" the congresswoman began, but at that point the woman from Plantation began screeching at her, as did others in her group. "Ma'am," said Wasserman Schultz several times, trying to calm her. "You have to stop asking me the question if you want an answer."

Another questioner accused Wasserman Schultz, a breast cancer survivor, of discouraging women from getting a mammogram before age 50, when in fact the congresswoman had done the exact opposite, even drafting legislation that she hoped would ensure more women detect breast cancer before that age. But the man was adamant and demanded that staff pull up a YouTube video he believed would validate his allegation.

Yet these were the most civil moments of the evening. Outside on the plaza, tea party types had gathered with the usual signs. Frustrated about not being allowed into the packed room, the tea partiers timed it so that  every time a door to the chambers swung open, they could scream into it. "You lie!" was the most frequent interruption.

One man carried a sign that likened Wasserman Schultz to a Soviet -- he must have been the one hurling the word "Stalin" at her. Others called Wasserman Schultz a "Nazi." (In fact, she's Jewish, as well as a conservative when it comes to the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.)

The people on the plaza seemed to be trying to outdo one another. One man selling Sarah Palin T-shirts screamed to Wasserman Schultz, "God punished you by giving you breast cancer."

If we judge the event by the lowest standard of Democratic value, we can say that people's voices were heard. But those voices were so emotional, so clearly uninterested in hearing another perspective that it's hard to understand why they attended a town hall in the first place. And yet their disruptions were so predictable, it's hard to know why anybody -- for, neutral, or against the Democratic policies -- attended this town hall.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Francis