Town hall meetings stir more conservatives to action

For Dave Swift, the frustration started with last year's $700 billion bank bailout. For Andrew Molaison, it was the sense his taxes were subsidizing people who bought homes "totally beyond their means."

In northeastern Pennsylvania Swift found like-minded neighbors at a Tea Party Patriots' rally and stayed in touch with the anti-tax group.

Along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, Molaison used the Internet to connect with a local chapter of the 9/12 Project, which is sponsored by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.

Those first steps led both men, 1,200 miles apart, to congressional town hall meetings on health care this week. The two are part of a phenomenon enabling national conservative groups to galvanize grassroots anger about big government and reshape the debate over President Obama's health care plan.

Suddenly, it's the conservatives' turn to be fired up.

"I'm concerned about the direction of the country," said Swift, 63, who sat in the front row of a county courthouse Monday to hear Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., talk about health care. "I'm tired of the government stealing from me," said Molaison, 42, after standing in a line that snaked out to the highway to listen to Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.

National groups such as the newly formed Tea Party Patriots and the more established FreedomWorks, led by former House majority leader Dick Armey, say the anger is spontaneous, but acknowledge they're trying to channel it into a nationwide movement. The FreedomWorks website offers an August congressional recess kit complete with talking points, suggested questions for lawmakers and a draft letter to the editor.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, says his is one of a number of conservative groups combing through the health care bills for potential problems and then e-mailing out suggested questions for activists to pose at town hall meetings.

The conservative groups have embraced many of the same grassroots, tech-savvy techniques that Democrats used last year to help get Obama elected. The groups are also providing networking opportunities for Republican conservatives who say they didn't have a candidate to excite them in last year's presidential contest.

"The only reason we voted for McCain was Sarah Palin," said Theda Adcock of Pascagoula, Miss., referring to the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Palin was his running mate.

So far there's no indication that the town hall meetings have eroded Obama's core support. Dozens of people interviewed by USA TODAY at town hall meetings this month in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Mississippi said they did not vote for the president. Yet a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken earlier this month showed that the protests have grabbed the attention of the independent voters who tend to decide elections. By a margin of 2 to 1, independents said the town hall meetings have made them more sympathetic to Obama's critics.

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The outpouring of people and the impact they've had on the debate has surprised the president's allies.

"I think people did not expect that people were going to act so vocally," said Andrew Stern, head of the 2-million member Service Employees' International Union, a supporter of Obama's health care initiative. "I think we were somewhat taken aback."

Social networking sites key

When the Tea Party Patriots held their first nationwide rally Feb. 27, organizers hoped a few dozen people might show in each of the 10 cities hosting an event, national coordinator Amy Kremer said. Instead, she said, 30,000 people turned out.

Today, there are more than 400 local chapters listed on the group's website and organizers estimate there may be 100 more. Four national coordinators work with local volunteers who schedule rallies, call their neighbors to invite them to events and let them know when a local representative is holding a town hall. The group also has a massive database of e-mail addresses it uses to stay in touch with members, Kremer said.

From the beginning, Kremer said, the group relied on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, to get their message out. The group uses Facebook, for instance, to link to a list of congressional town hall meetings. Kremer said the effort has been successful because it tapped into deep-seated mistrust in the government that people were feeling.

"It was already bubbling up," she said. "And when people start going out to the streets, they start realizing they're not alone."

The Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, among others, are organizing a march on Capitol Hill next month. FreedomWorks posted an item on its website this week seeking sponsors for the event and the Tea Party site includes details on how to catch a bus to the rally.

In addition to their websites, the groups have organized their own health care town hall meetings, rallies and e-mail campaigns. Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax group that says it spent more than $1.8 million last month on television ads opposing the health care legislation, has put together a bus tour with 170 stops in 13 states during the recess, for instance.

FreedomWorks and a separate affiliated foundation received more than $10 million in revenue in 2006, according to tax records. At least some of that money came from foundations controlled by conservative western Pennsylvania newspaper publisher Richard Scaife, tax records show. Americans for Prosperity and its foundation collected $10 million in 2007. The tax records are the most recent available, so there is no way of documenting who is financing the groups now or how much they have received.

Leaders of the groups, however, said it doesn't take an expensive event to rally supporters.

To build a crowd for an August town hall meeting held by Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., for instance, Brendan Steinhauser, a "social networking coordinator" for FreedomWorks, took a news item from a local newspaper and posted it on social networking sites. The visitors of those sites, he said, did the rest of the work.

The unlikely model for the 27-year-old organizer's effort: Obama's presidential campaign. "These guys are very smart when it comes to organizing," he said.

Tony Passaro of Bel Air, Md., says he got involved with the Tea Party Patriots when he was surfing around for information on how to protest a property tax assessment hike. "I Googled 'tax appeal' or something like that," Passaro said.

Since then, the 69-year-old retiree has organized an anti-tax rally in his hometown, picketed town hall meetings of Rep. Frank Kratovil and Sen. Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, and compiled a 1,700-name e-mail list. Passaro said he knows he's been successful when one of his e-mails comes back to him several days later from someone he doesn't know.

"We were told last year that the left had out-organized us on the web and cleverly used social networking and we didn't," Norquist said.

Now, he believes the tables have turned.

Gatherings still draw heat

The result has transformed August's normally sleepy town hall meetings into riveting reality TV. Halls have been packed, questions have been challenging and at times tempers have run so high that some lawmakers have called for police protection.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., lashed out at a protester who came to a meeting Tuesday with a poster that depicted Obama with a Hitler-style mustache. "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" Frank asked the woman during the meeting in Dartmouth, Mass.

Others are avoiding town hall meetings altogether. "I'm not going to give people a stage to perform," Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told the El Paso Times.

But for Carney and Taylor — moderate Democrats who represent districts that supported McCain in 2008 — there is no avoiding town hall meetings and the inevitable confrontations.

In Honesdale, Pa., a second metal detector was installed at the county courthouse to handle security for the 300 people who turned out. The meeting was also announced on the local AM radio station, in the newspaper and in a letter that an anti-abortion group inserted into church bulletins.

The meeting stayed civil, but the rhetoric got hot several times in the 130-year-old, un-air-conditioned building as Carney took questions about how the overhaul would affect Medicare and illegal immigrants, and whether government money would be used to pay for abortions.

Barbara Yanchek, 61, asked Carney about the abortion issue. Carney said he would not support any bill that used taxpayer money for the procedure.

Yanchek later said she learned about Carney's meeting on his website, but also said she had attended a meeting held by the Tea Party Patriots the day before in Scranton, Pa., where the abortion issue came up. "Nobody's sending us. There's no one calling us, or telling us to be here or be there," Yanchek said. "This is a grassroots effort."

At Taylor's gathering in Moss Point, Miss., which was also held on Monday, the congressman was escorted from the room at the end of the evening by a protective phalanx of eight uniformed Jackson County sheriffs.

Many in the audience carried six-page critiques of the House health care legislation, complete with page references. One of them, Lenny Emmanuel of Pass Christian, Miss., said he received his by email, but he and others were vague about the source.

In Moss Point, Miss., Taylor's audience grew restive halfway through the congressman's PowerPoint presentation. "Listen to us," one woman yelled. Then a chant began: "Health care! Health care! Health care!"

Some wore lime green T-shirts bearing the logo "We Surround Them," which is the local chapter of the 9/12 project, says Bob Lott, a disabled Navy veteran. The national group is "designed to bring us all back" to the unity felt after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to its website.

Lott said he hooked up with the local chapter by going onto the national website and punching in his ZIP code.

Taylor told the crowd he's against the proposed health care overhaul, but his listeners were only partially satisfied.

"I want to congratulate you for facing all of us," Emmanuel told Taylor. "But if you want my vote, you're going to have to do more than vote against health care. I want you to go up to Washington and tell them how angry we fellow Americans are."

Rick Scott, founder of the Conservatives for Patients' Rights, said he doesn't believe the movement shows any signs of letting up as the August recess winds down and lawmakers prepare to resume health care negotiations.

"We know now what's going on more than ever before," he said. "People are wising up because they're really mad."

Contributing: Susan Page