By: David Catanese
April 4, 2010 06:12 PM EDT
MANCHESTER, N.H. – If the experience of this state’s two Democratic House members is any indication, the raw emotion and mistrust emanating from last summer’s congressional town halls never really went away.
Instead, the unrest simmered over the ensuing months only to return to a boil when Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Rep. Paul Hodes, who is running for U.S. Senate, returned home to meet with their constituents here during the first week of the Easter recess.
Their public events provided a bracing reminder to Democrats that the political pivot from health care to economic and financial issues is going to be much more arduous than they expected.
At a senior center in Manchester Wednesday, one woman turned away when Hodes offered his outstretched hand for an introduction.
"I don't want to shake your hand. You voted for health care, so just go," snapped Carmen Guimond, as she refocused on her lunch of roast beef and mashed potatoes and waved him on.
When Hodes decided to stay at the table and launch a defense of what's considered to be one of the more popular provisions of the law — closing the "donut hole," a gap in prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients — she challenged whether he had read the entire bill and dismissed his explanation.
"Two hundred and forty dollars in the first year. That's all it is," she said, referring to the initial subsidy. "That's not much."
"And over time, by 2020, it closes the donut hole," Hodes explained.
"We'll all be dead by then," she deadpanned.
While the new landmark health care reform law is driving much of the hostility, in a handful of events here in the week after passage, voters expressed profound cynicism and suspicion not just about the legislation, but about Washington, government and virtually everything that came out of their legislators’ mouths.
A man who did not want to be identified said he pulled Hodes aside at the Manchester event to ask him why he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The congressman told him he’s allergic to gold. His constituent remained skeptical.
“It’s a satisfactory answer, but I don’t know if it’s true,” the man said afterward, citing “all the improprieties out there” as the reason he inquired.
For her part, at back-to-back town hall meetings in Bedford and Merrimack, Shea-Porter faced consistent boos, heckles and catcalls after almost every point she rattled off in defense of her vote.
Despite an effort to accommodate questions from the raucous crowds with a ticketed lottery system and a two-minute time limit for speakers, the congresswoman got little credit from the audience. If anything, it gave her opponents fresh ammunition.
"Why can't we ask a question?" yelled one man, objecting to a format that randomly selected numbers out of a tub of tickets to choose questioners.
"Are you a princess or a representative?" chastised another woman.
Yet another man was miffed that he received a form letter from her office in response to six specific questions he sent to her by mail.
"I expect a reply. I heard a position statement that did not answer any of my questions," complained Ben Niles of Merrimack.
Shea-Porter had her defenders too, and they were uncowed. When one heckler mentions polling against health care reform, he was greeted with, “That’s Sarah Palin’s death panel lies!”
Another supporter of the congresswoman responded to a comment with, "What, are you employed by some insurance company? Shut up!"
The raw emotion expressed at the public events—on both sides—left both Shea-Porter and Hodes seemingly resigned to the fact that that act of defending, or heralding, their health care vote will continue to occupy much of their time for the near future.
Hodes said he’s happy to answer the questions and is convinced that the majority of voters don’t have their heels dug in against the bill.
"If two out of twelve people have their minds fixed, that's about the ratio that I would expect. I think now that we have a bill and we're able to talk about what's in it and we're able to give people some very clear information about what's in it,” Hodes told POLITICO.
"Over these next few months, you're going to see growing acceptance of the legislation, growing appreciation for what the legislation does and an open mindedness to the benefits that the legislation will bring," he added.
Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic Party chair, said a groundswell of cynicism is to be expected when most of the attention and media coverage thus far has focused on a convoluted process and the colorful opposition.
“All we knew was that this behemoth was coming and that it was going to cost a fortune, and there were a lot of people upset about it. It wasn’t until the bill passed that you started seeing stories about what the bill actually did,” she said. “Cover kids on their parents plans until 26? Excellent! Takes away the companies power to deny pre-existing conditions? Great. Where is the communist stuff, and where is the stuff about the death panels now? It doesn’t exist.”
One question, though, is whether the unseemly horse-trading that to many voters seemed to characterize the process has tainted the final product—and voters’ trust of Congress.
When Shea-Porter referred the health care legislation at one event as a bipartisan effort and noted 200 amendments by Republicans, several in the audience jeered, "What a joke! You have got to be kidding me!"
When she said there was growing support for the legislation, even within her congressional district, a heckler taunted her, yelling, "How are your polls doing, Carol?" Another shouted, "That's a lie! That's a Pelosi line!"
Her statement that "the bill is paid for" led to a hearty round of laughs that made it seem like she had delivered a joke.
Of the 12 questioners who got a chance to speak inside the Bedford High School cafeteria, nine made it clear they flatly opposed the new law. Shea-Porter acknowledged there was strong opposition.
"We are in a swing district. It's split down the middle. This district really is a divided district on this issue," she said at Merrimack Middle School, adding that her support for health care expansion shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who followed her 2006 campaign.
When she told the crowd the obvious -- that they had the chance to oust her in seven months -- the notion prompted claps and a promise from one man who thundered, "And we will."