Update: Check out our slide show for more photos from the meeting and the protest.
Walking up to the health care reform protest outside Cityplace Conference Center this morning, a man in his 60s, in a plain white T-shirt and a bucket hat, had to stop and ask directions on the street corner.
"If you're for health care reform, you're with the folks closer to the building. If you're not for health care reform, you're by the street," a woman told him.
The man scanned the crowd, and made sure he understood right. "Not for ..."
"If you're not for health care reform, you're closer to the street," the woman repeated. With that, he pushed ahead into the crowd lining Haskell Avenue and unfurled a rag which he showed off as he pinned it to his shirt. "Congress needs to abort Obama health care baby," it read.
Outside U.S. Representatives Pete Sessions and Eddie Bernice Johnson's joint panel discussion this morning, the man could be forgiven a little confusion over where to stand. People carried "Silent Majority" signs on both sides of a yellow police tape hung to separate the crowds. Folks supporting the national health care bill walked in a roped-off circle with signs, many in the style of President Obama's campaign posters, while a slightly bigger crowd, carrying or wearing homemade signs, filled in the space along the roadside.
By the time Sessions and Johnson had wrapped up their discussion inside, protesters on both sides stood shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, waving their signs at passing cars.
The discussion inside Cityplace Conference Center, called "Charting America's Health Care Future," and organized by the law firm Curran Tomko Tarski, was a ticketed "town hall" meeting, with free admission to people who registered early enough. Republican Rep. Sessions agreed with Rep. Johnson, a Democrat, about the need for health care reform, and each reiterated their parties' positions on the debate in their opening remarks.
In an hour of scripted remarks and answers to preselected audience questions, Sessions focused on the need for personal responsibility in health care, and the benefits of letting patients "own thier health care," carrying their coverage from job to job. "The free market works, and it works well. The problem is that we don't have enough people paying into the health care system," Sessions said. "If you don't have any skin in the game -- if you don't even have a co-pay -- your responsibility is nil."
Johnson made a case for a universal public health care option by pointing out how many thousands of her downtown Dallas constituents are uninsured. "If we didn't have Parkland Hospital, I don't know what we'd do," she said.
While Sessions complained about burdening taxpayers with a public health care option, Johnson pointed to Parkland's huge outlay for uncompensated care -- "directly out of the pockets of us taxpayers" -- to make a case for the public option. "There are many people who object to that, but if we didn't need it, we wouldn't be talking about it here today," she said.
"Well, I call it socialized medicine, because that's what it is," Sessions said, drawing laughs from about half the room.
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"It's better than nothing," Johnson countered, to applause from the other half of the crowd -- about the most noise the crowd ever made during the meeting. Inside the conference room, there was no sign of the hot tempers and threats against Congressmen that have marked other town hall meetings across the country lately.
Originally scheduled on Southern Methodist University's campus, the meeting moved to the bigger venue at Cityplace to accomodate a some of the demand for the free tickets. Registration filled up quickly after the event was annouced, though, and some folks outside said they were being deliberately shut out. "From my point of view, they're limiting access to the forum," complained a woman outside who wouldn't give her name, but said she was with the Dallas Libertarians. "They're restricting it to be mostly supporters" of the national health care reform bill, she said.
"It's really a shame," said Alison Victoria, who stood inside the circle with the pro-reform camp. "There are people on both sides who love America. We need to stop looking at each other as the enemy," she said, unfolding a pair of flyers comparing President Obama to Hitler, handed out by the handful of Lyndon LaRouche supporters at the protest.
Victoria said she'd spent years working for health care reform, and was frustrated by the tone of the current debate. "My mother's a Republican. She's afraid of 'Obamacare' but she has Medicare. She agreed that something should be done, but she's afraid. Basically, it's an issue of who you trust."