South Florida town hall keeps unfriendly audience outside

Miami HeraldAugust 20, 2009 

The key to a orderly town hall meeting, it seems, is a closed door. The Florida Alliance for Retired Americans turned its annual health care forum into a ticketed event mostly for its members, ensuring a friendly audience for U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings of Miramar and Robert Wexler of Boca Raton.

"The seniors and the veterans built this country, and no one is going to come in here, disrupt us and embarrass us or take away our democracy,'' said Tony Fransetta, president of the liberal, union-affiliated group.

But outside the closed doors of the South County Civic Center was the hollering, finger-pointing and sign-waving that has defined public meetings on health care this month as Congress contemplates sweeping reforms.

"No Obamacare! Free market. Free America," shouted Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, over a bullhorn. "Yes we will!" responded a chorus of healthcare reform supporters.

People on both sides of the debate intermingled in the designated "free speech areas" outside the building, making it difficult to break down the turnout. Democrats argued with Republicans, small business owners jousted with veterans, and disabled people in wheelchairs proudly displayed their medical bills on their chests. There were elderly people in orthopedic shoes and children holding bags of crackers.

Jonathan Ligonde, a 25-year-old carrying a motorcycle helmet, did his best to convert Russel Hoffman.

"You can't argue with competition," Ligonde said, arguing that a government-run plan would force private insurers to lower costs. Hoffman, a 40-year-old former Marine, simply pointed to his T-shirt of a large, reptilian "Fedzilla" and said, "But you can't compete with this guy."

The atmosphere outside the town hall resembled a county fair. People carried American flags as well as umbrellas to shield them from the sun. A high school marching band played upbeat tunes. A handful of seniors sat in lawn chairs in the shade, their placards flapping against their tuna fish sandwiches.

But the spirited conversations degenerated as people trying to enter the town hall meeting were turned away and the afternoon temperature climbed. The building had room for only 500 people.

"There was no room for debate," said Diane Wichansky, a Boca Raton retiree, who opposes a health care overhaul. "It was a handpicked audience, with just a few of us on one side who managed to get in."

Read more at MiamiHerald.com

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