The scene could not have been more damaging for a public official: A TV camera rolling as Congressman Mike Coffman ducks out a side door of his own public event, fleeing around 100 members of the public— many of them there to grill him about what will happen if he successfully repeals Obamacare.
“He snuck out, and he snuck out early,” two women are heard saying in a video for a broadcast on Denver’s 9News that captured a crowd of frustrated Coloradans wanting to talk to the Congressman but left without access, nor answers to their concerns. Some shouted “open the door,” and “This is what democracy looks like,” when Coffman declined to meet with everyone at once.
Since the story about Saturday’s event in Aurora, the news of a Republican congressman from Colorado being confronted loudly at a public event by people concerned about Obamacare repeal has spread into national media.
The question moving forward is what Saturday’s strife might mean in the broader context of a brisk effort in Washington to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Republican members of Congress have started taking early votes to gut the law. Last week Coffman, along with Colorado’s three other GOP congressmen, penned a newspaper column urging repeal.
The scene in the Aurora Central Library has political observers wondering about the potential of a broader movement against repeal. What if a mirror image to the Tea Party movement – which grew out of town hall meetings in 2009 when critics of health care reform blasted Congressional Democrats who were trying to pass it – is afoot? What if there’s a backlash to the backlash?
Despite flaws with Obamacare, plenty of Americans from all sides of the political spectrum benefit from parts of it, especially the provision requiring companies to insure people with pre-existing medial conditions.
“I do think there’s a really good chance that as constituents all over the country contact their local representative, what happened in Colorado I could easily see it being replicated in different parts of the country,” says Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell University professor who specializes in American political history and has studied protest movements.
In the days following the Aurora incident, Coffman has offered various reactions to a situation he clearly did not expect.
At first he was defensive.
In a prepared statement to media, the congressman characterized the event as one disrupted by the “antics” of “partisan activists” who were “angry at the election results” and the “impending repeal of Obamacare.”
(3/3)My resolve isn't the least bit shaken by these antics – the American people want Obamacare repealed and replaced. #copolitics
— Team Coffman (@Team_Coffman) January 15, 2017
But speaking to The Colorado Independent Monday following a speech in downtown Denver, Coffman softened his tone. He said he thought the problem was really just the size of the venue. The meeting was scheduled as a one-on-one for constituents who had questions, he said, and he indicated he was more than willing to hold a broader town hall meeting in the future that could accommodate as many as 300 members of the public. He said he is in the process of securing a “very large venue” and trying to “really get the word out for people to come.”
While plenty of citizens did not get a chance to speak with Coffman Saturday – he allowed small groups to meet with him for a few minutes at a time – about 70 people did, according to 9News.
Nan Shannon, a university professor and musician from Centennial, was one of them. She brought photos of her husband who has cancer, as well as photos of their medical bills. She is worried about what might happen to people with pre-existing conditions, but she said she left with few answers.
“He doesn’t have a lot of empathy, at least with this situation,” is how she characterized the conversation with Coffman. She said when she mentioned a single-payer option he made a dismissive comment about the department of Veterans Affairs.
Shannon worked to help elect Morgan Carroll, Coffman’s unsuccessful Democratic opponent in November, and says she considers herself active in politics, though not an activist. She described the people at Coffman’s meeting Saturday as a quiet group in a situation that started to gather steam as the crowd swelled and they learned from Coffman’s staff that it was not a real town hall meeting. There was a sense of real frustration, she said.
After her few minutes with Coffman, Shannon followed news of the event as it snowballed into a national story. A 9News reporter’s tweet of Coffman bolting out the side door minutes before the event was scheduled to end was re-tweeted nearly 3,000 times:
— Nelson Garcia (@9Storytellers) January 14, 2017
People outside Colorado were taking note.
Since Saturday, the local story generated items in Slate, New York magazine, Time, The Hill, and even TeenVogue, among others. A Huffington Post headline by the site’s D.C. bureau chief read “This Local News Segment Shows The Obamacare Danger Ahead For Republicans.”
Such a prediction, and the broader national reaction to this story out of her home state, has people like Shannon energized.
“That’s why I was so excited to see that it went viral,” she told The Colorado Independent over the phone Monday. “I’m just hoping that enough people read it. People like us. Just standard everyday people.”
Of course, there is a question about whether the crowd that packed into Saturday’s event were, in fact, those people. Just how unorganized or organic the Aurora backlash was has unsurprisingly become a thing.
Coffman was quick to frame the situation as a partisan stunt. And in the wake of negative news stories rippling from it, some of his social media supporters blamed organizers on the left, without evidence, of staging the event for media altogether.
Consider this exchange between a Colorado reporter and the Twitter account of an anonymous conservative Colorado politics blog.
— CO Peak Politics (@COpeakpolitics) January 16, 2017
Others, using their real names, took the view that those present were not constituents in Coffman’s 6th Congressional District, which is anchored by Aurora and encompasses the Denver suburbs south to Highlands Ranch and east a few miles past DIA.
— James Viser (@JamesViser) January 16, 2017
It is true that in the week before Coffman fled his own event, local activist groups like ProgressNow had been organizing protests around Obamacare repeal. Two took place in Denver and Greeley outside the offices of Colorado’s Republican U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, who last week presided over a late-night budget vote to repeal Obamacare.
“That undeniably was us,” says ProgressNow director Ian Silverii. “We sent out things on our email lists, we did a lot of social media.” But he says his group did not organize the Coffman event at the Aurora Central Library Saturday. Silverii wasn’t there, but he called it a “natural, grassroots outpouring of frustration.”
Steve Krizman, who was there, shares that view.
“I think it was ordinary people,” Krizman said of the crowd, adding the vast majority seemed to want to talk about healthcare reform. He said it reminded him of the dawn of the Tea Party.
Krizman’s Twitter bio states that he is “Helping orgs get their story out in traditional and non-traditional media; health marketing consultant; professor of PR and Journalism.” He is, in other words, exactly the kind of person a Coffman-supporting Twitter troll might believe would tell the press the backlash was organic.
But Krizman told The Colorado Independent he heard about Saturday’s event while looking for the next time Coffman would hold a public meeting. He is part of a closed group on Facebook with about 100 members and he says last week he discussed health care and Coffman’s event at a meeting of the group.
Shirley Proppe, who works at a local nonprofit dedicated to helping people with vision loss, was at that meeting, and that’s where she first heard that Coffman would be holding an event.
She says typically she wouldn’t go to such a forum like the one on Saturday, but was in the area and thought she’d drop by. She went early. She wasn’t there to talk to Coffman about Obamacare herself, but says plenty were. Despite a public online listing saying the event was scheduled as a one-on-one for constituents, she says people she met there thought it would be a town hall. She doesn’t understand why Coffman didn’t just turn it into one. There might have been one belligerent man, she said, and the crowd became chaotic at times, but it was not an angry mob.
“We didn’t want it to turn into something like that,” Proppe said Monday. “We didn’t want to scare the guy. We wanted to talk to him. And his people just simply said no.”
Proppe is also one of the attendees who helped alert media to the scene. She says she pinged the local TV station on social media and helped connect a reporter to certain people in the crowd. A thread on Facebook shows people who were there, in real time, were excited to learn local media was on the way.
Proppe characterizes the frustration pervasive among the crowd as something that was largely fueled by the decision by the Congressman and his staff not to address everyone at once.
“I was pretty infuriated by his comments making it out like a planned event,” she says.
Proppe, like others who have heard that Coffman plans to hold a real town hall to accommodate a broader audience, is likely to have to fight for space if she shows up again.
— Jennifer C. Greenfield, PhD, MSW (@jcgreenfield) January 16, 2017
And then what? A couple 1000 show and it persuades him or worse, he doesn't listen then what? Even bigger venue? How about Mile High? https://t.co/r6N37cNejf
— Robert Nemanich (@RWNemanich) January 16, 2017
Glickman, the political historian, says if a potential protest movement against Obamacare repeal does start to bloom it could be in line with other backlash efforts against plans to end federal programs.
One close parallel might be the Office of Price Administration, created by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II to prevent inflation and control prices. When an effort to phase it out launched after the war, a movement to keep it boiled over into protests that were a mix of organic uprisings and activist-based organizing.
“This reminds me a little bit of that,” Glickman says about Obamacare and any protest effort that might arise against its repeal.
“It’s not abstract. When you have a government program that’s working on your behalf, however flawed it may be, it’s different than the promise of some future program that nobody has at the moment,” he says. “I think what you’ll see is a combination of, yes, there will be organizations trying to get popular mobilization but there will also be a lot of people willing to be mobilized because these are very much bread-and-butter issues.”
Photo by Chris Isherwood for Creative Commons on Flickr.