- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2009

BRIGHTON, Colo. | Stung by howling protesters and losing ground in the public relations battle over health care, members of Congress this summer are ditching traditional town-hall meetings and using less confrontational methods of meeting constituents as they try to persuade a wary public to back the Democrats’ overhaul plans.

For Rep. Ed Perlmutter, Colorado Democrat, that meant holding court outside the King Soopers grocery store here Saturday behind a 6-foot wall of bottled water, blocked from view of roughly 400 voters in a parking lot.

“He’s in there hiding,” said John Frantum of Denver, who opposes the proposed expansion of government-provided health care. “He should have been out here with a bullhorn once he saw the writing on the wall.”

Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, was easier to spot outside Vic’s Coffee Shop in Boulder. He opted to meet his constituents one at a time and was calling out numbers, butcher-style, to the packed crowd of several hundred.

Polis spokeswoman Lara Cottingham said the congressman was using the one-on-one format because of the sensitive nature of some of the health care questions he would hear.

“Because it’s health care, it’s kind of touchy,” Miss Cottingham said. “People don’t want to stand up and say, ‘I just lost my job, now what do I do?’ ”

Lawmakers who still go the usual town-hall route have faced name-calling and finger-jabbing across the country. Some lawmakers have found crowds so unruly that they canceled their events on the spot.

The protests aren’t directed only at Democrats. Supporters of President Obama’s plans have ramped up their efforts to both defend Democrats willing to go along with the president and to pressure undecided lawmakers of both parties.

Over the weekend, the Democratic National Committee urged millions of Obama supporters to visit their senators and House members and demand an overhaul of the health care system.

But for now, most of the heat has been generated by health care opponents who attend events convened by Democratic lawmakers.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, faced a protest when she visited a Denver health clinic last week along with Mr. Polis and Rep. Diana DeGette, another Colorado Democrat.

Mrs. Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, wrote a column in USA Today on Monday calling protests that drown out opposing views “un-American.”

White House spokesman Bill Burton, when asked what the president thought og the Pelosi-Hoyer editorial by saying that “if people want to come and have a spirited debate about health care, a real vigorous conversation about it, that’s a part of the American tradition and he encourages that If you just want to come to a town hall so that you can disrupt and so that you can scream over another person, he doesn’t think that that’s productive.”

The office of a congressman from North Carolina said it fielded a threatening phone call. An Arizona newspaper reported that someone dropped a gun at a meet-and-greet with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat.

ProgressNow Colorado, a group pushing for a health care overhaul, said the side-view mirrors of a staffer’s car were broken off during the event. The group said a pro-health care reform flier was lying “in plain sight” in the back seat of the car.

At both Colorado events, supporters of a government-run health plan outnumbered opponents by a ratio of at least 2-to-1. Foes of the plan who have been accused of being, in effect, paid emissaries of insurance companies were clearly less organized that the president’s backers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union brought about a dozen members, easily identified by their black polo shirts, to support Mr. Perlmutter.

But the long line to see the congressman discouraged people from waiting.

“I wanted to talk to him, but there’s no way,” said Marilyn K., who asked that her last name not be used. “I think he’s kind of chicken because he’s only taking one person at a time.”

Many of those who turned out for Mr. Perlmutter’s event didn’t bother getting in the line, which wasn’t easy to find amid the hundreds of demonstrators and half-dozen police officers milling around.

“We got here early and then as soon as [Mr. Perlmutter] got here all the protesters that had been standing over there rushed forward,” said Jim Dodd of Lakewood. “The line devolved into chaos.”

Still, Mr. Dodd said he didn’t mind the one-on-one approach.

“I like the format of being able to sit down and talk to him,” said Mr. Dodd, a small-business owner who backs the public option. “I just don’t think he anticipated this many people showing up.”

At both Colorado events, members of Organizing for America — a pro-health care reform group — gathered signatures for a petition supporting a government health care plan. Most printed signs came courtesy of the AFL-CIO, Health Care for All Colorado and Organizing for America.

“I can’t believe they’re saying we’re astroturf,” said Carol W., a health care reform critic who carried a homemade sign. “You’ve got union reps over here, you’ve got ACORN people over there, you’ve got people with pre-printed signs, and we’re the ones who are organized?”

Opponents of the Democrats’ health care plans bristled at the charge they were a rent-a-mob.

“Hey, I’m a Republican and I live here and people are asking me, ‘Did you get bused here from out of town?’ ” said Carl Fischer. “It’s unreal.”

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