Tuesday, August 11, 2009
We rarely boo at baseball games. Our calls to talk radio, although at times tinged with anger, are generally polite. To outsiders, it must appear difficult to stir Atlantans into a froth.
However, given the recent history of the so-called health care town halls across the land, there was some trepidation as people filed into the Cole Auditorium at Georgia Perimeter College's Central Campus on Monday night. 4th District Congressman Hank Johnson was hosting his first town hall and many showed up to see the fireworks.
Perhaps it was the heavy police presence. Perhaps it was the constant attention of the volunteers. Perhaps it was the very structured nature (including a reading of the rules and the Pledge of Allegiance) of the event. Perhaps it was all of these which calmed the divided crowd.
Or perhaps it was a slick politician with a speaking tone the equivalent of vocal valium.
Dekalb Commissioner Larry Johnson moderated and both he and Congressman Johnson asked the crowd to show the rest of the country that the south and Dekalb County was known for its ability to be polite in disagreement. For the most part, they succeeded, although as the rhetoric heated up, there were a few flareups and three people were escorted out for shouting from the audience. Commissioner Johnson joked about the first day of school and how the crowd had "failed the first test" bringing subdued chuckles from both sides of the aisle.
But perhaps Johnson's cleverest tactic was his panel. Instead of a town hall where a politician stood upon a holy rock and preached, the Congressman presented a panel of seven medical professionals with positions as diverse as the CEO of Grady advocating national health care to Dr. Troy Williamson of the Medical Association of Georgia flat out stating any public option was unacceptable. The ricocheting opinions had portions of the crowd switching from boos to cheers with whiplash speed. When one panelist advocated "personal responsibility", the applause was near universal.
The lack of radicalness proved a foil to the expected craziness and the only incident which drew attention from the stage was during the audience participation portion when a young man shouted a question from his seat. Outside the town hall, Sean Mangieri of Atlanta, the first person escorted out, said he expected to be thrown out for breaking the rules but felt it was necessary because it was "not a legitimate debate". Mangierie was quick to point out he was not there representing anyone but himself.
Perhaps the relatively subdued mood of the town hall was summarized best by former 10th District Republican candidate Bill Greene who attended because he felt it would be interesting. Greene said although he disagreed with Congressman Johnson's positions, he was "impressed by the diversity of the panel" and noted this is not the first time Johnson has reached out to unexpected allies. In 2009, the liberal Democrat Johnson co-sponsored libertarian Republican Ron Paul's bill to audit the U.S. government.