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and we wanted to make sure that our Representative knew that we did not want the ACA (Affordable Care Act/Obamacare) repealed unless there was an improved replacement plan that would be immediately available.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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)