In 1994, Senator Edward Kennedy was in a tough fight for reelection against a well-financed Republican opponent named Mitt Romney. There was a debate between Kennedy and Romney at Faneuil Hall and before the candidates arrived a large crowd of boisterous Romney supporters dominated the gathering. The place was a sea of Romney signs with a few placards with photos of aborted fetuses thrown in for good measure. The white, largely well-healed Republicans outside the hall were shouting classy chants like: “Last Call for Ted!” and “Chappaquiddick!” Romney arrived first and it was clear that the loud and unruly GOP partisans had the upper hand, especially in front of the local television cameras.
The spectacle at health care town hall meetings we are seeing today, where screaming people seek to dominate a political event ever cognizant of the cameras, remind me of those Romney people I saw that day in Boston.
But an old pro like Ted Kennedy who had been steeped in Boston politics from the days when his maternal grandfather, Honey Fitz, was mayor, wasn’t going to allow the Romneyites to control the assembly.
Suddenly, the entire scene outside Faneuil Hall shifted when about a hundred burly men descended on the place engulfing the Romney supporters. The area outside Fanueil Hall now became a sea of Kennedy signs held by very pushy, very big, and very noisy members of a local carpenters’ union. Kennedy had given a fiery speech at a union hall just prior to the debate where he reminded the workers about what he and his brothers had done for labor over the course of their political careers. At the end of his speech, he urged the entire union local to pick up Kennedy signs and head down to Fanueil Hall to show their support, which they did with vim and vigor. By the time the workers assembled the Romney people had been literally pushed outside the view of the TV cameras and the landscape looked like a huge Kennedy rally. I could hear a few Romney supporters complaining about the “rudeness” of the carpenters. I also heard one of the workers ask: “What has Mitt Romney ever done for working people?” (There was only silence on the other end of that question.)
So there’s a simple solution to these Republican astro-turf goon squads that are currently disrupting Democratic town hall meetings on health care. Do what Kennedy did. Speak before a crowd of supporters who have dirt under their fingernails and know how to win battles in the workplace. The fight over health care is no different from the fight over the eight-hour day or the minimum wage. At root is whether we as a nation are going to view health care as a human right or will we allow it to remain a privilege.
Democratic politicians facing town hall disruptions should seek the help of their working-class supporters. Make sure large numbers of people from the local unions come to these events. Then we’ll see if the Tea Bagger thugs can continue their bullying tactics on behalf of corporations seeking to block progress on health care.
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