At Upper Senate Park on the grounds of the US Capitol yesterday, on ahot, humid DC summer day, 10,000 people from across the country ralliedfor healthcare reform with a real public option.
They flew in from as far as Washington state, Montana, New Mexico andNebraska; bussed in from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York andNew Jersey; and made the trip from Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee,Missouri and Illinois.
It was a vibrant crowd, showing the colors of unions that turned out inforce: CWA red, UFCW yellow, AFSCME green, SEIU purple, LiUNA orange,IBEW lime, and SIU blue.
They were there not only to rally but to lobby. They understood theurgency with nearly 50 million people uninsured and millions moreunderinsured and an illness away from bankruptcy. They understood theopposition as the industry lobbyists fight tooth and nail to protecttheir profits. And they understood the need for citizens to make thecase for real reform each and every day until we win.
Maddie, a resident caregiver for children with developmentaldisabilities in Vineland, NJ, made the bus trip down with AFSCME Local2215.
"We have a lot of people -- even in the bus that we brought down today-- they have children that are sick. One lady has a daughter who has arare disease -- she doesn't have any healthcare," she said. "It's moreimportant than getting a raise, or making extra money. We fight healthissues every day of our life... The private companies aren't necessarilygonna give us that healthcare, the public option makes sure it's forall. I just hope my brothers and sisters make a statement today and dowhat we came here to do -- convince Congress."
Ronald, a splicer for Verizon, came from Wilmington, Delaware with CWAlocal 13100.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done. Everybody needs to rallytogether and get this," he said. "We're in America -- strongest nationin the world. We shouldn't be going through this -- with all thesepeople not being able to take care of their family members .... We votethese guys in to do a job -- not to leave their state, come down here toDC, and then all of a sudden they flip the script, they have their ownagendas."
Congressman Charles Rangel told the crowd that their efforts werehistoric, drawing a parallel to the March on Washington.
"Civil rights without the right to health -- you can't use it much," hesaid. "Remember this day the same way we remember the day that wemarched down here with Dr. Martin Luther King. No one knew howimportant that march was....One day you'll tell your kids and yourgrandkids that have healthcare, 'Enjoy that, but don't take it forgranted because [I] came to Washington on a hot, June day'...."
Senator Charles Schumer -- who has taken a leading role in speaking outfor a public plan option (in contrast to weak substitutes likeDemocratic Senator Kent Conrad's regional coops) -- also fired up thecrowd. He called for a public option that isn't "diluted" and told thepeople to "hold [Congress'] feet to the fire" in this "long, hardfight."
Actress Edie Falco -- a breast cancer survivor -- talked about her pastas an unemployed actress who needed to make the same tough choices somany people are forced to make today.
"It's bad enough the emotional impact of not having a job, but to getsick on top of that, and worry every day that [you're] not gettingbetter, figuring out what you're gonna have to do without so you canafford a doctor's visit," she said. "I'm far more familiar with thatthan I am with my situation these last number of years. I'm here onbehalf of all the people who are still in that situation, working hard,doing their jobs, and not being able to take care of themselves or theirfamilies."
The rally lasted for about an hour and a half, then folks headed tolobby their legislators or attend town meetings. Pennsylvania -- whichhad 2,000 people who came down in 36 buses or carpools -- packed themain floor of the Capitol City Brewing Company and its balconies withhundreds of rank and file union members. (There were definitely morethan 700 people -- the official capacity of the establishment.) Therewas word that Senator Arlen Specter was on his way, and with his plansfor reelection hinging on Democrats who were unsure about his positionon the public plan option and the Employee Free Choice Act, there wasquite a buzz.
He kept getting delayed, however, and most were predicting he wouldn'tshow. In the meantime, Congresswoman Allison Schwartz stopped in topledge her continued support for this cause. So did Sen. Specter'srumored challenger in a Democratic primary, Congressman Joe Sestak.
Rep. Sestak told the crowd that while his opposition to the Iraq War isoften reported as the reason he ran for Congress in 2006, his primarymotivation was the debt he feels to the nation for the healthcare he andhis family received while he was in the military.
Four years ago his daughter was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumorand given just months to give. But she received the best possibletreatment and she is now eight years old. Her roommate her first dayin the hospital -- a two year old boy with acute leukemia -- didn'thave insurance and treatment was much more difficult to obtain. Thatwas when Sestak began to focus on healthcare for all Americans. He saidhe's in this fight as "payback to the citizens of this nation" whoprovided the care his family needed.
The crowd began to disperse as people gave up on Sen. Specter. Butabout three hours after the meeting began, he showed -- having beendelayed, it turns out, by the White House meeting on immigration.
For some minutes before the Senator spoke, the crowd chanted repeatedly,"Healthcare is a right. Stand with us and fight." So when SenatorSpecter finally stepped to the mic he said, "I compliment you on yourtenacity.... And I think Sen. Schumer has the right idea about having apublic component which has a level playing field with the privatesector."
While it's good news that Sen. Specter called for the public option thatSenator Schumer hours earlier said can't be "diluted", we know this isfar from a done deal.
It would be good to see President Obama tap into the grassroots energythat brought so many to Washington yesterday. Congress now begins arecess that runs through Fourth of July weekend, and Pres. Obama shouldbarnstorm around the country for the robust public option he wants. With his approval rating remaining high, and 72 percent of the countrywanting a public plan, he can tap real momentum which could decide thisdebate.
Too many craven Democrats are still talking compromise in an effort towin 60 votes. We don't need a few out-of-touch Republicans. What weneed is real health care reform that includes the public option, and itcan be done with just 51 votes thanks to the arcane "reconciliation"rule in the Senate.
But to win this, it might take the President coming out and fightinglike hell -- just like the good people who came to Washington to maketheir voices heard yesterday.