Our First Town Hall Meeting, Won’t be Our Last!

On a warm and sunny Saturday morning, most Floridians, snowbirds and tourists were hitting the golf course, walking the beach, playing tennis, biking on nature trails, or watching their kids play outdoor sports.  My husband and I made a different choice.  We decided to attend our first political town hall meeting in New Port Richey with our US Representative Gus Bilirakis.

When we pulled up to the West Pasco Government Center, there were already crowds forming.  Various local activist groups were handing out information, signing up new members, and passing out signs to those who were interested.  There were also many individuals, like us, who came with hand made signs that we hoped would attract attention to our cause.  Health care was the topic of the town hall, and we wanted to make sure that our Representative knew that we did not want the ACA (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) repealed unless there was an improved replacement plan that would be immediately available.  As seniors, we also wanted Gus Bilirakis to know that we expected him to protect and defend Medicare and Social Security…”no ifs, ands or buts.”

As we entered the room, we looked around and found a standing-room only crowd.  Then my husband noticed that they were wheeling in a few more chairs, and we grabbed the last two available seats.  The auditorium was then at capacity and they began turning away people at the door.

A half hour later, the meeting started with the briefest remarks by Rep. Bilirakis.  He emphasized that he was there to listen, and that his staff would take notes, and they would allow as many people to speak as time permitted.  He asked everyone to be respectful and for the most part we adhered to his plea.

For the next two hours, people spoke up!  The Chairs of both the Pasco County Democratic Party and the Republican Party were in the first group called up to the microphone.  They were met with various degrees of applause but the Republican chair was also greeted with boos when he started talking about “death panels.”  Then he made some nasty remarks that were caught on camera and later shown on national television (CNN, MSNBC, NBC and others who picked up their news feed).  He actually had the nerve to address us as “Children”!  I can assure you that he didn’t win any new followers among the Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the crowd, and he may have lost a few Republican voters in the process.

I would estimate that at least 50 people (about a fourth of the crowd) got to speak directly to Rep. Bilirakis in front of the crowd.  I would say that of those that were called to the mike, about 9 out of 10 spoke positively on behalf of keeping the ACA or improving it, and were against repeal without an improved replacement plan.

Many shared personal stories of how they or loved ones were affected positively by the ACA.  Three medical doctors talked about how it made a great improvement in their patients health care.  They said that before the ACA, many patients would avoid going to their doctor until they were extremely sick.  By the time they saw them, their diseases had progressed and treatment was more costly.  After the ACA, more of their patients had insurance and as a result they didn’t delay getting to see their doctor.  All three pleaded for affordable, early interventional health care for people of all ages.

Town hall speakers came from every walk of life, and the age range was from young adults in their early twenties to seniors in their 70’s and 80’s.  Many of the younger folks said that they had benefited by the ACA because they were able to stay on their parents insurance while in college and in graduate school.  Some shared that now they needed insurance made available to them through the ACA exchanges because their current employers offered no health care insurance.

There were small business owners who spoke on behalf of the ACA.  One woman said that she would be able to afford to hire another employee if she didn’t choose to provide health benefits in her company of less than ten people.  But she helped her employees pay for insurance offered through the exchanges provided by the ACA because it was the right thing for her to do and that also helped her keep highly qualified employees.

Here are my “take aways” from the town hall meeting:

  1. Our US Representative Gus Bilirakis really listened to his constituents and he and his team did a masterful job of crowd control.  He is obviously an experienced politician and not afraid to meet the voters in his district.  While he and I may differ on policies, I now have great respect for him and the way he conducts himself as our US Representative.
  2. Speakers who came prepared with facts, statistics and personal stories were the most effective.  Some were obviously nervous and said they were not used to speaking in public, but Rep. Bilirakis put them at ease and thanked them for coming.  He could not have been more welcoming.  The professional people (like doctors, teachers, managers, and business folk) spoke as much to the Congressman as to the crowd, and I think that was helpful.  His staff took notes and said they wanted to keep in touch.
  3. I believe attendance at town hall meetings is critical to having our voices heard.  Even though I signed up to speak, I was glad that I wasn’t called to the microphone because I did not have prepared remarks (only rambling thoughts).  I talked to one of his staff people and he assured me that he will help me set up a personal meeting with Rep. Bilirakis.  I am looking forward to that and know that I will go well prepared.

Even before we left the auditorium, I started to receive text messages that they were showing clips of our town hall meeting on national television.  My friend in St. Louis spotted us on CNN and MSNBC and sent me photos that she captured from live coverage.  By the time we got home and turned on our tv, we found that they kept repeating the loop from our town hall meeting on those stations throughout the afternoon, and so we were able to see ourselves on national television many times!

At first I was surprised that our meeting was covered by national news networks, but then I remembered that we live in a swing district in a swing part (I-4 Corridor) of our swing State of Florida.  Our voices matter!  And we have a Representative who is not afraid to listen to his constituents.  During the meeting he announced that he will be having more town halls in the future so that everyone can have their voices heard!

You better believe that my husband and I will be reading his online newsletter and following our local politician very closely.  This may have been our first town hall meeting, but it definitely won’t be our last.

I encourage you to attend town hall meetings in your districts and to make your voices heard.  You will see democracy at work!

(PS  I am holding up a pink sign in back of Rep. Bilirakis in the first picture.  In the second picture, my husband Ted is to the left of Rep. Bilirakis and I am to the right of him on the photo captured from CNN)

 

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“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…”

During the summer of 2001, my husband and I visited our daughter in New York City.  One day we took the ferry out to the State of Liberty and then on to Ellis Island.  I took this photo looking back at Lower Manhattan where the skyline was dominated by the Twin Towers.  No one knew that by the end of summer, on September 11, 2001, the towers would be brought down by terrorists.  That was the day that fear entered the American psyche.  Psychologically, our country has never be the same.

Our American optimism went down a slippery slope.  During the G. W. Bush years, we recklessly entered into two foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and gave large banks and financial institutions the ability to bring down our economy to the point of near self-destruction.  This reached a crescendo in the fall of 2008 when the stock market crashed, homes were foreclosed, the job market tanked and many people lost their livelihoods.  That was a dark time in America.

Barack Obama ran for the presidency on the promise of Hope and Change.  His election brought back a degree of optimism.  Thanks to his leadership and a Democratic Congress, we got a floor under our crashing economy, gave life support to the automotive industry, and finally brought affordable health care to a large segment of our population who otherwise would have been unable to purchase health insurance.

In my opinion, the Ship of State seemed to be righting itself.  Progressive values seemed to be taking hold, especially with younger generations.  Everything wasn’t perfect, but the trajectory of our country seemed optimistic…especially for women, minorities, the LGTBQ communities, persons living with disabilities, environmental groups, and Native Americans.

Then came Trump’s shocking win in the 2016 presidential election.  Looking back, I can understand how a large segment of our country voted for him.  It was because they felt “left behind.” He certainly played on their fears.  He promised them jobs which they desperately needed in order to hang on to their version of the American dream.  Some of his followers felt that progressives had made too many gains and they wanted to roll back the clock.

His boldest promise was to stop illegal immigration and the flow of refugees to our country.  Both of these are serious issues and need to be addressed.  But rather than working with Congress (where both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans), he decided to act unilaterally by issuing Execute Orders that would throw our country into chaos.  I have heard from several of his supporters that they are happy to see Trump acting in such a way and are applauding his ability to “get things done” apart from Congress or anyone else that might get in his way.  I just shake my head and wonder why people think this is a good idea.

The protests started immediately!  People are taking to the streets in opposition to his actions and executive orders.  Even National Park officials and Scientists have made their voices heard!

To me, Trump’s behavior these past two weeks seems “reckless” at best and “destructive” at its worst.

We must always remember that America is not yet a dictatorship.  It is a democracy with three branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial.  The founders of our country set up this system of government in order to have checks and balances so that one branch would not hold power over another.

My prayer today is that our Government (all three branches) will work together to move our country forward.

I also pray for all  those yearning to come to our shores after being vetted and obtaining visas and green cards, whether they are on a path to citizenship or here to contribute to our society for a short time.  Even Donald Trump has asked, since his election, for our country to authorize visas to workers that he wants to bring to our country in order to work at his American properties (even thought there are plenty of Americans who would like those jobs, especially in South Florida).  For that reason alone, I call him a hypocrite.

He has tried to put a ban on people from particular countries or religions which is now being temporarily blocked in federal courts.  Many legal experts are looking at his executive actions and calling them not only unconstitutional but not in our best interest if we want to remain “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

In watching news reports these past days, I weep for those being turned away from our country who have valid reasons to come and live among us: international students, doctors and researchers, interpreters who have fought along side our military, children coming for life saving medical needs/surgery, and those traveling back and forth for personal reasons who are now trapped in our political chaos.

Time magazine’s latest cover showed a Statue of Liberty with her flame going out.  Let us keep her torch burning brightly for all the world to see.  Let us be optimistic once again!

 

 

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