Officials avoiding town hall-style health care forums

  • Are health care town hall meetings, like this one in Virginia, coming to the suburbs? Not many, officials say. The only one scheduled is Aug. 31 in Skokie.

    Are health care town hall meetings, like this one in Virginia, coming to the suburbs? Not many, officials say. The only one scheduled is Aug. 31 in Skokie. Associated Press

Updated 8/19/2009 2:10 PM

As the end of a contentious Congressional break appears on the horizon, it seems clear suburbanites will get few chances to attend town hall-style meetings over health care reform.

The shaky, homemade videos of vigorous town hall meetings across the country have certainly punctuated the debate.


But they have also steered suburban politicians on both sides of the aisle away from such open meetings where protesters can grab the spotlight and microphone.

That means fewer opportunities for shouting and even less of a chance for civil debate.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat and the No. 2 leader in the Senate, is one of the few Illinois politicians to come out and say he won't have a town-hall meeting on the heated issue.

"The people who are behind this are not the average person," he said. "They're more interested in YouTube than you."

But it appears clear Durbin is not the only one veering away from such gatherings.

U.S. Reps. Melissa Bean of Barrington, Judy Biggert of Hinsdale, Bill Foster of Batavia and Peter Roskam of Wheaton have all opted for more controlled environments than the free-range town hall-style format since their break started in early August.

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That makes political sense, says Mike Lawrence, former head of the Paul Simon Public Policy Center for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a longtime media adviser to Republican Gov. Jim Edgar.

"What we've seen though is that a lot of people are not coming to those meetings to listen, they're coming to those meetings to vent their anger at politicians and to disrupt the meetings," Lawrence said. "I can understand why public officials would not find them to be constructive."

The closest event West Suburban residents have had to a town hall was a joint appearance last week by Biggert and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, at a Naperville Chamber of Commerce meeting. The event was tightly controlled, with no cameras allowed and a strict preregistration requirement.

Kirk has had town hall meetings across the state, but he concedes he needs to get out and meet voters directly because he is running for Senate. Plus, most of Kirk's meetings have taken place outside the Chicago media market and in regions of the state that tend to vote more consistently Republican. The events are not listed on his campaign Web site.


"I can't have enough town hall meetings," Kirk said after the chamber event at a Naperville hotel.

Meanwhile, Republicans Biggert and Roskam have focused on teleconferences that reach out to thousands of callers at once who then can wait in a queue to ask questions.

Biggert has also toured retirement homes in her West Suburban 13th District. The public isn't allowed inside and protesters supporting Obama's health care plans have taken to picketing outside.

Kirk, Biggert and Roskam all oppose Obama's health care push.

Democrats Foster and Bean also appear to be steering clear of the town hall. For weeks Bean's office has said her schedule is still being finalized, and she did set up two health care teleconferences on Wednesday night.

Bean spokeswoman Elizabeth Shappell said district staff has been taking down phone numbers of those who call in to get a list of those interested in the issue on the line.

Foster has been touring his far West Suburban 14th District, but mostly on economic and federal grant issues.

Both Bean and Foster are facing intense pressure from both sides of the debate. As suburban Democrats, they could swing either way on the final vote and they stand to face the wrath of voters with either decision.

One suburban Democrat has taken her position public.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, whose district includes parts of Des Plaines and other suburbs near O'Hare International Airport, is hosting a health care town hall forum in Skokie on Aug. 31.

The Evanston Democrat also headlined a rally supporting Obama's plan in downtown Chicago. Schakowsky has been one of the most vocal proponents of government-run health insurance in Illinois' delegation.

Lawrence says town halls have long been a staple for lawmakers to reach out to voters and explain their positions even if they are unpopular. Health care reform, apparently, has just become too divisive of a topic for such a democratic forum, he said, with both sides of the debate organizing to attend the events strictly as protest opportunities.

"Neither of these groups is interested in hearing what the other has to say and I think it has been clear at a lot of these sessions that the people attending are not particularly interested in what the public officials have to say," he said. "There was a great potential to explore an issue like this through the means of town halls, but that opportunity seems to have been squandered."

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