Lots of shouting, but no fisticuffs at Harkin town hall

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) held an hour-long town hall meeting this afternoon that attracted about 150 people to a small, stuffy meeting room. Many in the crowd were there to speak against the health care reform package in general.  Tempers flared, fingers were pointed, arms were waved and — 15 minutes into the forum — two uniformed Des Moines policemen arrived inside the room to join the security guard in plain clothes who’d been there since the start.  At the conclusion of the event, there were three DMPD cruisers parked outside, but there were no arrests.

Harkin confronted the crowd, rhetorically, at the very beginning — saying there was misinformation about health care reform being circulated by those trying to quash the bill. From that point on, some members of the crowd shouted back at Harkin, who kept calling on people in the room to keep their cool while at the same time letting them vent. Harkin’s staff huddled at the side of the room as the shouting matches between members of the audience flared and tried to get Harkin to shut the event down early, but Harkin remained behind the lectern ’til just after 3 p.m. The event started at about two o’clock.

I’ve posted the audio, the full hour here.  

“As we have seen in recent days, opponents are pulling out all the stops to kill the reform effort.  This is a shame because as you know all too well the status quo is broken,” Harkin said near the beginning of his opening remarks.  “…The press just asked me about all the consternation and I said, ‘Well this is good. The country should know about this.  It should be fully debated and aired.’ But I said there is a lot of misinformation out there…You’re going to see a lot of effort by powerful interests to twart the change that we are trying to make in health care and that’s understandable.  There’s a lot of money at stake here.

“….These folks are resorting to scare tactics, misinformation and obstruction. There was a nationally-coordinated meeting to interrupt (town hall) meetings and stuff like that.  I don’t expect that kind of stuff to happen here.  We’re Iowans. We don’t do that kind of stuff, but I saw it on television.”  

Harkin got applause from his partisans in the audience.  Harkin then told the crowd his prediction of what would happen if the status quo is maintained.  The other people in the crowd started saying, “Not true!” and “No, no, no!”

John Kurr of Windsor Heights started yelling. “Senator Harkin, you show me one good Indian reservation with excellent medical care and I’ll be the first one to say, ‘Yes, I’ll be jealous of that.'”

The two factions in the room started grumbling at each other. An elderly man wearing a cap approached Kurr.

“Why don’t you go home?” the elderly man said as he bent over and poked his finger at Kurr.

“How dare you!” Kurr yelled back.

“Listen now,” Harkin tried to interject.  “All right.”

The crowd continued to grumble and yell. “As I said there is a nationally coordinated effort to disrupt these meetings,” Harkin said. 

Kurr erupted: “Who sent me here?  Who sent me here? I sent myself. How dare you!  How dare you claim that I’m part of a conspiracy!” 

“Don’t play that card on us,” another man said to Harkin.  Kurr kept talking.

Another man in the back of the room started shouting: “i’ll tell you something.  I’ve read that bill. I don’t know that you have and let me tell you something.  It reads like something that was brought up in the early 1930s in Germany.”  The crowd erupted with both sides yelling at one another.

Harkin, again, tried to calm the crowd. “I hope in a civilized manner, without yelling and interrupting anyone,” Harkin began, before getting cut off again.

“You’ve got to tell us the truth,” a man in the back yelled.

At this point, there was some general shushing, and then Harkin started talking again.

I’ll be back with more in a moment.

At about 20 minutes into the event, Harkin started talking about wellness and prevention.  There was no yelling or booing about that. Then, Harkin launched into an eight point list of changes included in the health care plan passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, of which he is a member.

After point number one — you can keep your own insurance plan — a man in the back yelled: “That’s not true!”

Someone else, a Harkin supporter in the crowd, said: “Be quiet and let him talk.”

That prompted another man — in support of the “That’s not true!” fellow to yell: “Let this man tell the truth!”

Harkin then interjected: “I know it’s hot in here, but let’s keep our tempers down.”  Harkin kept talking, mentioning parts of the bill that passed his committee.

“It will outlaw discrimination for preexisting conditions,” Harkin said, to general applause from the crowd. Harkin talked for a few more minutes without interruption.

The calm didn’t last long, though. “So I urge all of you to look at the bills and cut through a lot of the clutter that’s coming out of Washington now and be skeptical of those who try to scare you with a lot of half-truths,” Harkin said, and the health care reform crowd started grumbling again.  

“Come on,” one man said in the crowd yelled.

“I’m not mentioning anybody. I just saw an ad.  Yesterday, I was sitting in the barber chair and I saw an ad and it was pretty devastating, but then I saw who paid for it. It was GOP something or other paid for the ad,” Harkin said, prompting more grumbling.

A woman asked: “And the DNC?”

One man yelled: “How about MoveOn.org?” 

Harkin continued. “I’m just stating what was on the TV.  It was a pretty scary ad and quite frankly I don’t think that does service to really legitimate, open debate,” Harkin said, as a man in the audience interjected: “How about two-sided debate?”

Harkin concluded by predicting health care reform would pass, then he opened it up for questions.

“I will take some questions. Boy, it is really hot.  I just apologize for that,” Harkin said, just before he called upon a woman kneeling on the floor, holding a video camera in her hand.

“Senator, I was wondering why the push for a public plan, a single-payor plan, when obviously the public seems very much against it?” Heather Stancel of Earlham said.

Some in the crowd started shouting Stancel down.  Harkin asked his people in the crowd to pipe down.

“Will you let her ask her question, please?” Harkin said. “I beg of you.  Let’s be generous and kind to one another.  She has a legitimate question and I will try to answer it as best I can. Please.”

“You are correct. There are a lot of people scared out there, however, it the bone of contention seems the public plan. Reform is great. Reform is excellent, however, common sense reform is important,” Stancel said, concluding with this: “I think a lot of people agree that capitalism is the best way to regulate insurance companies.”

Lots of applause and whistling from the crowd, the Harkin began:  “Well, I’d only respond by saying capitalism, whatever that means in this broad context…”

The crowd erupted.  “You don’t know what it means?” one man shouted.  Another yelled: “Are you socialist/communist?”

Harkin continued: “If it is the best way to regulate, then why do we spend more than any other country in the world and why are we 37th in the world in our health status? You know, that’s what’s happening right now.  Insurance companies are overcharging.  The pharmaceutical companies are overcharging.”

Harkin then references some notes he had with him, and a woman in the crowd asks: “Do you think they should make a profit?”

“I think insurance companies should make a profit…but again, what kind of a profit should they make?” Harkin asked.  “…The top seven health insurance companies in America over the last five years had a combined increase in their net profits of 170 percent.  The average salary of the CEOs of the top seven health insurance companies is $14.2 million a year.  I’m not certain that that’s the kind of money we want taken out of our health care system, to pay high-priced executives and to pay pharmaceutical companies.” 

The crowd started grumbling among themselves again and clapping at what people in the crowd were saying to one another, and Harkin called on Kurr, the man who yelled about the Indian reservations at the start of the event.  Some of Harkin’s people started trying to yell Kurr down.  Harkin interjected: “Wait. Wait. Let him ask his question.”

“Senator Harkin, in your introductory words you said that health care cost us $2 trillion a year,” Kurr began. “…The banker bailout bill that you voted for has already cost us $23 trillion. You have enslaved me, my children and anybody’s greatgrandchildren here to pay Wall Street bankers.”

One woman applauded.

“We cannot pay that back.  The health care system that you’re proposing is merely a tax to give to the bankers,” Kurr said.  Harkin shook his head no.  “Yes it is. You can look at me.  I can show you in the bill….Well, that’s called 1984.  If you want, I’ll go home and get the bill.  I’ve got it highlighted. I’m sure somebody else here has got it, too.”

Several in the room began nodding, indicating they had a copy of the bill, too. 

“You have indebted the nation and you’re trying to use this health care scam-ola and you’re going to give it to the bankers,” Kurr continued. “…Everybody in the country, when you pay your federal income tax it goes to one place, the Federal Reserve Bank…They are sucking the life-blood out of us right now.”

The crowd seemed restive at this point. “Can we have questions, please?” someone said.

“He had a question, I just can’t remember it,” Harkin said.

Harkin moved on to a man who asked whether the federal plan would be modeled after the reform plan passed in Massachusetts, then Harkin called on Diane Robinette of Des Moines.  She questioned whether there are 47 million uninsured Americans, and whether at least 10 million were illegal aliens.  A longer discussion and debate among audience members ensued for a few minutes about illegal immigrants. Then, a woman in the crowd advocated tort reform.

Next up, a confrontation over “freedom” and general booing of Harkin when he mentioned his military service.

“What is wrong with freedom?” Ger Clifford asked.  “…Stop treating us like we’re children…What do you think we are? Stupid?”

“Well, obviously I spent a lot of time in the miltiary fighting for your freedom,” Harkin replied.  Harkin backers in the room applauded.  The rest booed and Clifford asked about freedom kept yelling.

“The founders of our country, our fore fathers, set up a representative system of democracy,” Harkin said, prompting about three people in the crowd to scream: “It’s a representative republic!”

Harkin continued: “I do listen. Obviously, there are some people who have concerns here; other people who are more supportive.  We’re trying to wade through all of this, to hear everybody. I don’t think it helps to shout or to accuse people of bad motives.”

A few start yelling.  “You accused us of being part of some conspiracy.”

“All I said was there have been a lot of reports,” Harkin said.  A Harkin aide came forward and said loudly: “It’s three o’clock senator.”  Harkin continued talking, trying to talk over the crowd.

“I have a web, a web that was just taken down just yesterday on six ways to embarass your congressman,” Harkin said, as some in the crowd responded. “Well, I don’t mind being embarassed.  That’s part of my job. I don’t mind that at all.”

Clifford, the man in the middle of the room who’d asked about freedom, yelled: “Answer my question.”

“There’s nothing wrong with freedom,” Harkin replied, then Harkin kept talking about details in the bill.

The man in the middle of the room kept talking.  “We are being treated like children.  You’re taking away our money. Knock it off.” The crowd members who supported his point of view applauded.

A woman in the far corner of the room asked a question about transparency.  “The bill is there for everyone to see…No one’s trying to hide anything,” Harkin replied.

A man asked whether congress had run models to find out how insurance premiums would be impacted by the changes. Harkin’s basic answer was the hope is competition will drive premium costs down.  A man in the back said sarcastically: “Hope, yeah, that’s great.  Hope.”

The event’s final question came from a nurse in the audience, Denise Gross of West Des Moines. “Nothing’s happened better.  Our health costs are still high. Our premiums are still going up.  I would like to ask these people,” she said, turning to those around her who had been critical of Harkin and health care reform efforts in general: “What solution do you have?” 

The crowd, as you’d expect, erupted again.

“Tone it down.  Tone it down.  I know it’s hot in here and we’ve been here long enough.  I apologize for the heat,” Harkin said, before offering what he called his “valedictory” on the topic.  “…We’ve got to have better prevention and better wellness and that’s the only way, really…” Most of the crowd started clapping and Harkin said “Thank you.”

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


  1. John Olsen says

    Thank you for the VERY detailed report on this meeting. I so wish I could have been there to support Senator Harkin. I can’t help but have deep respect for a man who stands there calmly and even tries to quiet his supporters just so he can hear his critics’ questions and try to respond to them. WOW!!
    I actually think Kurr’s statement about Indian reservations was pretty clever and deserved a response on that one.
    I wish the critics of health care reform would offer their own solutions to the problems that every one agrees need to be addressed.
    –John Olsen
    Ankeny, IA

  2. Harkin & his union goons are trying to intimidate Iowans from seeking the truth.

  3. I agree with your comment about Harkin sticking in there and doing his best to answer the questions. As for us “critics of health care reform” we want reform as much as you do! We have offered solutions. There needs to be tort reform so that doctors and hospitals are not forced to pay such exorbitant malpractice rates. We need to remove a lot of the regulation so that we have more freedom in our own health-care choices. Essentially, it is a free market solution. More government involvement never equals better service, efficiency, or cost.

  4. Heather Stancil says

    Unfortunately, there have been alternative ideas out there, proposed, and defeated by the Democrat Majority. All of these contain common sense ideas, but not the public plan. Tell me, how can any private company compete fairly with a public plan that is consistently infused with taxpayer money?

  5. My husband and I were there at the meeting and a couple of times I was concerned it would turn into a fist fight. There was a contingent of people there who are very, very angry, and not just about health care reform. Some of them seem truly terrified. One of them compared health care reform to the Nazi’s, which is completely inappropriate. Tremendous fear prevents the opponents of health care reform from having a civil, healthy debate on the pertinent issues.

  6. Ann Paulson says

    There IS a solution and one much cheaper than has been proposed. It’s the Singapore plan.

  7. That is the best, most balanced, and fair report out of a Town Hall I’ve ever seen. Seriously.
    I wish I’d been there. Of course, I’m in Seattle. *OUR* Senators either refuse to hold Town Hall meetings in person, or hold them in locations that are very difficult to get to (for me to get to Coupeville would require a 30 minute drive, a 30 minute ferry ride (plus however long to wait for the ferry), and then another hour drive…just to get there.) Very convenient for people on the Peninsula. Wretched for the rest of the state.

  8. Eric E. Kelley says

    I am an Iowan who now lives in Pittsburgh, PA. I have read and listened to Sen. Harkin’s town hall meeting. I hope that there can be more debate on this issue as I do support reform. However, I do not, in any way, support government run healthcare. The President and members of congress are also engaged in spreading disinformation as they try to hide the fact that their real goal is a single-payer, government-run healthcare system. The President stands in front of the national media and the AMA and firmly affirms that this is not the case. Yet, we have all seen the videos in which he and memebers of congress freely admit that single payer is their goal. He knows he/they cannot get the votes to move directly to single payer, thus he/they are trying to sneak it in slowly by offering a public option. Therefore, let us all quit trying to point the finger as guilt lies everywhere. What I propose to you, Iowans, is to stop the yelling and any behavior that does not lead to positive debate. Please go to these meetings armed with information and then ask your representative, with respect, to provide a equally informative response. They will indeed listen to you as you are the only ticket for them to go back to D.C. Please, I beg you, make Iowa an example of how things are done and done right. Come on, lets do what Iowans do best, lead by example!

  9. Access to health care happens through affordability, which only happens in a competitive free market.
    Government can only add cost, because it adds no value, only oversight and bureaucracy. Every government program is insolvent. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. Nationalized health care will bankrupt our children, which is immoral.
    Government intervention in health care is no solution.

  10. Joe Hansman says

    You know I used to want to fight everything in America that took away our freedoms and right to fail and succeed. Anymore, I believe what the hell, why not. I mean the government has no problem in running the departments we already entrust to it such as the V.A. health system and the DMV. Conservatives around America just give up – heil Obama our Premier and Sumpreme Ruler of the grand democratic people’s republic of the free weimar american republic. (amazing how the more dictatorial a country gets the longer/more free sounding the name gets, i.e. east gernmany).
    I propose we cut this country in half – one side returns to the America we had circa 1899 and the other can have government ran everything with 100% taxes and Uncle Sam taking care of you every step of the way – just wait until then and you will see which America would do better.

  11. I was disappointed at harkin’s arrogance and visible disdain for the crowd. While the shouting and “bumper sticker” questions were inappropriate, i think the senator could have done alot to ingratiate himself to the audience by saying that he thought the GOP conspiracy stuff was nonsense, and that he knows Iowans are concerned about their country and care about reform. Instead, he chose to mock opponents and continued to espouse conspiracy theory. I have the whole thing on tape, and harkin was nowhere near as benevolent as you make him sound

  12. “Access to health care happens through affordability, which only happens in a competitive free market.”
    There is no competition in the current system. Welmark controls 71% of the health care insurance market in the state of Iowa. That doesn’t seem very competitive to me.

  13. ” I do not, in any way, support government run healthcare”
    So we can count on you to never use Medicare or Medicaid, or join the military (since their care is government run), or obtain any sort of employment with a government organization such as the post office?

  14. Joe Gorman Council Bluffs, IA says

    I don’t undrestand the rush to push this bill through with little or no debate. The same was done with the Stimulus bill which appears to have been a waste of 800 billion dollars, the Cap and Trade bill which will burden everyone in the country with heavy energy taxs and most likely do nothing. Now the President and the Democrates in Congress want to ram-rod this Health Care Bill through. The President and Congress have lost all my trust, I smell Snake Oil sales men.

  15. There was no yelling or booing about wellness and prevention. Harkin and the Democrats are very big on this and believe it will result in savings to the tune of $200 Billion. I am a mental health counselor and currently manage medicaid money for psychiatric and substance abuse admissions. In my experience, people are not inclined to take preventive measures. Thus the CBO didn’t want to use those figures. Those “savings” will never materialize. Bank on it.