Published on Friday, August 8, 2003 by The Bradenton Herald (Florida)
Katherine Harris Booed at Bradenton Town Hall Meeting
by Donna Wright
BRADENTON - U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris had planned a quick town meeting Thursday night at Bradenton Kiwanis Hall.
But when hundreds of people showed up with detailed questions, her tight schedule didn't allow detailed answers, and a frustrated crowd turned angry, booing the congresswoman several times.
After introductions at 5:30 p.m., Harris spoke for nearly half of the allotted hour. It was after 6 p.m. when she asked for questions.
The lines at the microphones were long.
The boos were loud.
"We want our answers now," a man in the back of the room shouted.
She said, "Doing it this way will allow more people to speak."
Harris' logic didn't sit well with the standing-room-only crowd.
The crowd's mood already was testy before the meeting began. Security guards and Harris' staff confiscated any written material people tried to bring into the hall.
The confiscated literature included analysis of the Medicare prescription bills passed in the House and Senate in June as well as a chart showing Harris' voting record since she began her term in January.
The fliers were distributed during an earlier news conference staged in the parking lot by senior citizens to protest House and Senate bills designed to provide prescription drug coverage through Medicare.
The protesters were asking Harris to support reform and not support either bill, which they said provided too little coverage to too few through a plan that would ultimately privatize and weaken Medicare.
Joining the news conference were representatives from the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the Association of Community for Reform Now.
"This is wrong," said Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida chapter of AARP, as he was asked to hand over fliers.
"We have never been restricted in what we could hand out at other town meetings," Fransetta said. "We have talking points that simply list questions that would help people better understand and articulate their concerns. They have been denied that right."
Pat Benson of Bradenton said she had never been at a town meeting where literature was confiscated at the door.
"This never happened at Dan Miller's meetings," said Benson, referring to Harris' predecessor in Congress.
Connie M. McKee, a Harris staffer, said ethics laws made it illegal for people to distribute political information during a town hall meeting.
"We are not taking anything away," McKee said. "All of the material is still here and they can pick it up when they leave. They just can't take it into the hall. The ethics laws do not allow us to let them take it in. We have to be very, very careful that there are no laws broken with our member (of Congress)."
Larry Winawer, of the Alliance for Retired Americans, didn't buy McKee's reasons.
"What kind of ethic laws prevent people from having information in front of them so they can ask reasonable questions?" Winawer said "I have never heard of such a thing."
Harris distributed her literature to attendees. One flyer detailed how Bush's economic plans are restoring confidence and creating growth through fiscal discipline. Another highlighted the many benefits of Medicare reforms passed in June.
When she asked for questions, Harris faced a barrage of queries covering phosphate mining, funding for Head Start, veterans benefits, budget deficits, the daily cost of the Iraq War, environmental concerns, fiscal policies, health care reform, medical malpractice crisis, and detailed questions on the proposed prescription plans.
When dozens of attendees could not get their questions asked in the first hour, master of ceremonies Sheriff Charlie Wells said at 6:30 that the meeting would be extended 10 minutes.
At about 6:50, Harris said she would take only one more question, and the room erupted into boos.
At 6:55 p.m., Harris began her answers.
At times, people tried to ask follow-up questions, but she wouldn't allow it
"This is my turn now," Harris said repeatedly.
When the town meeting ended at about 7:20, disgruntled people filed out the door, picking up the pamphlets they had been forced to leave behind.
Becky Martin, of the League of Women Voters for Manatee County, was not happy.
"As a constituent, I was disappointed that there was only an hour allotted for this," said Martin, who is chairwoman of the League's Health Care Committee. "Here in Manatee County we deserve more than an hour for a town hall meeting with everything that is going on in the world. We need a town hall meeting on Medicare privatization alone."
Elizabeth Schultz of Bradenton disagreed, complimenting Harris for her tact and diplomacy.
"I thought the town meeting was very well done," Schultz said. "She handled the crowd very well. I though the crowd was very unruly."
Copyright 2003 The Bradenton Herald