Fear the Turtle

The Speaker’s Lobby: Fear the Turtle

By: Chad Pergram, FOX News

02 September 2009

Few of the 1,500 people who attended House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) health care town hall in Waldorf, MD Tuesday night noticed the banner hanging above the entrance to the North Point High School gymnasium.

Perhaps they should have.

“Welcome to North Point,” declared the banner. “Where Sportsmanship is an expectation. So please let the players play. Let the coaches coach. Let the officials officiate. Let the spectators be positive.”

When Hoyer, the highest-ranking lawmaker to hold a town hall, entered the gym, supporters showered him with a mix of applause and chants of “Sten-ee! Sten-ee!” Detractors welcomed the Maryland Democrat with a bellow of deep, bassy boos.

Two men stood in the bleachers, gesturing with their thumbs turned downward. Others screamed epithets.

And thus, September took up exactly where August left off. With another round of raucous health care town hall meetings.

Hoyer coaxed James Xinis, the CEO of Calvert Memorial Hospital, to emcee the forum. At the outset, Xinis asked everyone to agree to a set of rules for the event. No one could display any signs. People were asked to stay in their seats.

“Please respect each other and everyone’s opinion. I ask you not to interrupt and refrain from profanity,” Xinis said.

Everyone nodded that they would abide by the rules.

Israeli-Palestinian ceasefires have held longer.

“I’ve been in office for 29 years,” Hoyer said in his opening remarks.

“Too long!” blustered a man in the rear bleachers.

Then a moment later, a pair of middle-aged men, one wearing a t-shirt and glasses, the other sporting a coat and tie and an American flag lapel pin, got up in each other’s grills in the nosebleed section. Charles County, MD, Sheriff’s deputies interceded the duo exchanged blows.

“Steny Hoyer supports baby killing! Steny Hoyer supports baby killing!” fumed the man in the tie, his face beet red as police escorted him by the arm out of the gym.

The Majority Leader said he’d make a 15-minute presentation about the bill. He’d then yield for a few moments to a four-member panel of health experts before fielding questions.

A chorus of boos erupted as Hoyer told the assembly “there are no death panels.

“Please!” implored, Xinis. “We need to follow the rules.”

The crowd bleated even louder.

A moment later, Hoyer indicated that the health plan “does not provide health insurance to illegal immigrants.”

“Are you going to take any questions?” thundered a man in the back.

“It’s our turn!” screeched a woman.

“Let the people speak!” barked another.

Hoyer sat calmly on the stage with his legs crossed as Xinis again tried calm the room.

“Those rules that we talked about…” Xinis stammered. “There are a lot of students in the audience. And this is not showing a good example.”

The partisans returned to the booing leitmotif. A sign language interpreter positioned on the side of the stage, mouthed the word “boo” over and over. She gestured with her thumbs down, swaying her arms toward Xinis, the apparent subject of the catcalls.

Before the Q&A, Hoyer then deferred to the panel for their presentations. The crowd grew restless. A few men stormed out.

“They’re just politicking!” protested one as he hit the exit. “Too much bull—-.”

“We came to see Steny!” steamed another.

Unfazed, Xinis introduced the next panelist, Dr. Zaneb Beams, a pediatrician who practices in Laurel and Columbia, MD. Some attendees volleyed another round of boos as Xinis read Beams biography.

“Please show her some respect,” pleaded an exasperated Xinis.

“We don’t care! Get to the questions!” a woman hectored.

Lt. Col. George Forrest, of Leonardtown, MD was the final panelist. Sensing the feistiness in the gym, Forrest endeared himself to the crowd.

“You didn’t come here to hear me,” Forrest said, indicating his comments would be brief.

A Bronx cheer erupted from the backbenchers.

For a meeting that started shortly after 7 pm, and delayed by the sneering, Hoyer was finally ready for questions at 7:55 pm.

Attendees who wished to pose questions received raffle tickets beforehand. Xinis then read off the numbers of “winning” tickets.

“782. 738. 114. 038,” he said.

“How about 666?” heckled a male voice from the back.

April Burke of Mechanicsville, MD was first. She asked Hoyer if he would make a commitment that every Member of Congress would be subject to the terms of the health care plan.

Bruce Dunton of California, MD was one of the next inquisitors.

“This looks like old-time union hall meeting where we’re raising hell all night until the people leave,” Dunton said.

Hoyer even fielded a question from Collins Bailey, his 2008 Republican opponent. Bailey, who took 25 percent of the vote and hopes to challenge Hoyer again in 2010, asked if the legislation would hike taxes or drive up deficits. Hoyer said he wouldn’t vote for the bill if it raised the deficit.

“I appreciate him going on the record,” Bailey said. “That was pretty direct.”

Hoyer supporters were out in force, too.

Mary McHugh of Chesapeake Beach, MD, met a gale of jeers when she informed the Majority Leader that “I’m never afraid to say that I’m represented by Steny Hoyer in the United States Congress.”

Another told him to keep pushing for the “public option,” the section of the bill that would allow people to purchase their health insurance from the government.

“They’re just more vocal than we are,” said the man of those who oppose the public plan.

Ana Rosado of Laurel, MD, a member of the United Healthcare Workers East, doesn’t even live in Hoyer’s district. But she showed up anyway to back Hoyer’s effort.

“I had to come out because he’s getting such a backlash,” Rosado said.

Rosado then told the crowd that she thought health care was a right. That prompted a woman wearing a tri-corner hat to jump out of her seat and wave a copy of the U.S. Constitution at Rosado like a priest would brandish a cross to ward off demons. 

Toward the end of the evening, John Shaffer of New Carrollton, MD, rose to ask Hoyer a question. During his remarks, Shaffer mentioned off-hand that he was flying out west this week to take his grandson to watch the University of Maryland Terrapins football team challenge #12 ranked Cal in the season opener.

For a moment, the gibes and booing stopped.

“Let’s go Terps!” hollered someone in the back.

“Fear the turtle!” yelled another.

It was the only time there was consensus in the room all night.

– Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.