Tempers flare in South Florida over healthcare overhaul

Aug 6, 2009

Confrontation over a national healthcare overhaul reached South Florida on Wednesday, when routine office hours for the staff of a Broward-area congressman turned into a raucous protest.

The incident is like others that reflect nerves frayed by the nationwide debate. Democrats decry what they describe as a mob rule orchestrated by special interests trying to protect the status quo; Republicans call it genuine grass-roots concern over a costly government takeover.

Though only a handful of constituents typically show up at the Lighthouse Point public library once a month with questions for U.S. Rep. Ron Klein’s staffers — often questions about Social Security checks or passport applications — this time about 100 people packed the room for two hours.

The group was rowdy, rude and fired up about healthcare.

“Where the hell is Klein?” demanded Republican activist Ana Gomez-Mallada, even though the congressman was not scheduled to be there. Others branded him a “coward” and a “communist.”

From Texas to Pennsylvania, protesters have disrupted town halls. In North Florida, an effigy of a congressman, Allen Boyd, was tarred and feathered; in New York, a congressman had to be escorted to his car by police.

The rally on Wednesday in Klein’s 22nd congressional district office was orchestrated by a Republican campaign rival.

The public outcries are likely to continue while Congress is in recess and members make the rounds in their hometowns.

Klein plans to hold a healthcare forum in his district this month — via telephone.

He brushed off suggestions that he is trying to duck face-to-face encounters.

“I will compare my record on town hall meetings with anyone in the Congress,” Klein said. “I’ve always been very out there and willing to meet with people, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Klein argued that “tele-town halls” allow him to reach more people. He said he also will make numerous public appearances. A June meeting at Boca Raton Community Hospital drew about 75 people, his office says, while about 2,600 participated in a phone call on homeowners insurance last month.

Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston and Kathy Castor of Tampa are also planning tele-town halls on healthcare this month.


Broward Republican Party Chairman Chip LaMarca, who attended Wednesday’s protest, said the public also expects to see their lawmakers in person.

“Representatives are supposed to be ingrained in the district, and there’s no reason they should be afraid to come out and give their opinions. If it’s going to be a big event, we’ll find a bigger venue,” LaMarca said.

In Lighthouse Point on Wednesday, the parking lot near City Hall was overflowing with cars. Inside the library, a few people waved handmade signs. “Obama Care is a big lie,” read one placard. “Czars = Tyranny,” read another.

One woman had printed out a 1,018-page healthcare bill. “I’ve only read up to page 430 so far, and I’ve seen a lot of things that scare me,” said Debbie Brown, a 52-year-old homemaker from Deerfield Beach.

The protesters also raged against the Democratic administration’s spending, its policies to combat global warming and its stance toward Iran. Jim Black of Fort Lauderdale challenged President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship, even though the president was born in Hawaii.

“We know he was born in Kenya. Give me a break!” yelled Boca Raton retiree Bonnie Rey, who was holding a red, white, and blue umbrella.

It was unclear how many people in the crowd live in Klein’s district; several declined to put their names on sign-in sheets. Many chanted in support of Klein’s GOP opponent, Allen West, a retired Army officer who lives in Deerfield Beach.

West’s campaign circulated an e-mail this week billing Wednesday as a “unique chance to tell Congressman Klein how you REALLY feel about Government-run Healthcare.” A campaign volunteer, Valentina Weis, said the campaign heard Klein would be in Lighthouse Point from “one of those e-mails that get forwarded a whole bunch of times.”

Klein’s website says only that staff will be available at the Lighthouse Point location on the first Wednesday of the month.


Even as some protesters insulted Klein’s district director, Felicia Goldstein, she listened patiently and took notes. “Shame on you!” one woman shouted. “Pay attention,” someone else yelled when Goldstein momentarily stepped back from the crowd.

Kristen Bradley, a 47-year-old Lighthouse Point resident, stepped outside in disgust. “I thought they acted like kindergartners the way they interrupted each other,” she said.

Nationally, both Democrats and Republicans have sought to capitalize on the protests.

“Now, desperate Republicans and their well-funded allies are organizing angry mobs — just like they did during the election,” says one Democratic online ad, featuring footage of crowds confronting lawmakers.

House Republican Leader John Boehner accused Democrats of being “in denial.” In a fundraising appeal, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, “It’s a page out of their standard playbook of name calling and outright lies to stifle all debate.”


Polls show voters want change but are growing concerned that healthcare reform will leave them worse off than they are now.

Democrats worked phone banks in Miami Beach and Plantation on Wednesday and plan to rally in front of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s office in Miami on Friday. The national party is running attack ads against Diaz-Balart as well as spots aiming to boost politically vulnerable Democrats in Central Florida.

Florida League of Women Voters President Deirdre Macnab said she hopes the political rancor won’t discourage members of Congress from engaging constituents in a public debate over healthcare.

“We think it’s a critically important issue and we encourage members of Congress to hold as many of these meetings as they can so they can make informed decisions,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation and posturing on all sides.”