A First Hand View of a Raucous Town Hall Meeting

ABC’s Steven Portnoy reports:

There were no lobbyist-funded buses in the parking lot of Mardela Middle and High School on Tuesday evening, and the hundreds of Eastern Maryland residents who packed the school’s auditorium loudly refuted the notion that their anger over the Democrats’ health care reform plans is “manufactured.”

“I went to school in this school,” a man named Bob told me. “I don't see anyone in this room that isn't from Mardela Springs right now.”

“We’ve been quiet too long,” said a woman named Joan.

They came to yell at their congressman , freshman Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil, and they were surprised to hear that the “Congress in Your Corner” event to which they had been invited -- by a robocall from Kratovil himself -- was not to be a public airing of grievances, but instead an opportunity for private, one-on-one sessions with the freshman Democrat.

As the crowd grew, and began venting frustration over the fact they would only be meeting with the congressman behind closed doors, Kratovil’s aides suggested he switch to a town hall format.

The aides seemed nervous. Last week, someone hanged Kratovil in effigy outside his district office in Centreville, Maryland.

“I am here because I understand that I do represent you folks, okay?” Kratovil said, after entering the auditorium to applause. “The opinions that you folks have, I need to know. There are legitimate concerns.”

Just then, someone in the audience shouted back, “Our freedom is being taken from us!”

Kratovil is a Blue Dog Democrat who signed onto a letter last month urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay a vote on a health care reform bill until after the August recess. His officially “undecided” stance on health care reform makes him a prime target for frustrated constituents already miffed that he voted for the House Democratic leaders’ energy bill last month, after initially telling voters he was “undecided” on Cap and Trade.

The former county prosecutor won his seat – formerly held by a Republican -- last November by just 2,852 votes.

Boos and cries of “You don’t get it!” were hurled at Kratovil, as he suggested that the current health care system needed to be fixed.

“You're deceiving us! You're trying to shove this stuff through,” one woman yelled.

“I'm not! But I hear you,” Kratovil pleaded.

“This bill is un-American,” said another voter, who asked whether Kratovil has read it.

“I am reading it right now,” he said.

In an interview before the session, Kratovil admitted he’s under heavy pressure from both the constituents in his conservative-leaning district and his party’s leadership, but, alluding to his vote on Cap and Trade, he said he’s already cast unpopular votes.

“I'm trying to make decisions based on the merits of it, and not based on politics,” he told me.

By the end of the 90 minute town hall -- which Kratovil told the crowd was his fourth interaction with constituents that day -- the congressman looked exasperated. He was hounded by jeers all the way out to his car.

In talking to a few attendees afterward, one man said he now admires and respects his representative. “He stood up, he took his shots, and did it like a man,” a man named Bill told me.

Two elderly women said they were embarrassed by their neighbors.

"They were rude! Oh, they were behaving terribly," one said, calling it a "disgrace to our community." Said another of the anger, which sounded very much to her like what she hears on Fox News and conservative talk radio, "If it's not manufactured, they're brainwashed."

- Steve Portnoy

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