With the auditorium inside already packed, a crowd of more than 1,000 people snaked around the front yard of the Red Bank Middle School awaiting its turn inside. Three consecutive seatings were required to accommodate the turnout, with the final session beginning at around 10:30p.
Some came to yell ‘Get a job’ at their congressman. One came to ask him if he was a communist. Another spent $14 on a cab ride from Middletown to declare her own candidacy for his seat, on the platform of “if everybody gave up meat and chicken, people wouldn’t get sick.”
In the aggregate, most of the 1,300 people who swamped Tuesday night’s forum on a proposed federal health insurance plan came to vent their anger over the plan’s expense and expected impact on their continued access to quality medical services.
Through it all, sixth-district Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a Democrat, stood his ground on the auditorium stage at the Red Bank Middle School, unwavering in his defense of the plan.
“I don’t believe that the majority are opposed to this,” he said, speaking of his own constituents, prompting one of many cascades of boos heard over the course of three seatings.
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Replying to someone who asked if he would “renounce” his support, Pallone was emphatic. “I’m one of the key people that wrote this bill,” he said. “I’m a proponent of the bill.”
Now in his 11th term, the Long Branch resident serves as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health, which oversees Medicaid and other federal healthcare initiatives.
Over the course of two packed sessions of 500 people each and a third with 300, opponents of the measure drowned out proponents, directing a nearly constant flow of invective toward the stage.
“Do you consider yourself a domestic enemy? Because I certainly do,” one man told Pallone.
Another, carrying two bright yellow homemade posters, said he had looked up the word communist in the dictionary, and after reading the definition aloud, asked, “Is Webster’s Dictionary wrong, or are you a communist?”
People lined two walls of the auditorium’s main floor to ask pointed questions about particular provisions, while others took a broader view. A man from Marlboro accused Pallone of having told “a complete lie” about access to insurance for people with pre-existing conditions. A woman in a wheelchair in the front row was shouted down as she read from a handwritten script that “we all need healthcare coverage to be a basic human right, not a privilege.”
Other backers of the reform measure were subjected to constant interruptions and shoutdowns.
“Why can’t you just tell the truth,” one man screamed. “That this is about control of our private lives?” He generated a standing ovation.
The “town hall” meeting was originally scheduled to be held in the Red Bank council chamber, which holds fewer than 100 people. The location was changed after complaints that the room would nearly accommodate those who were expecting to turn out.