At Upper Senate Park on the grounds of the US Capitol yesterday, on a hot, humid DC summer day, 10,000 people from across the country rallied for healthcare reform with a real public option.
They flew in from as far as Washington state, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska; bussed in from Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and New 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 in force: 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 the urgency with nearly 50 million people uninsured and millions more underinsured and an illness away from bankruptcy. They understood the opposition as the industry lobbyists fight tooth and nail to protect their profits. And they understood the need for citizens to make the case for real reform each and every day until we win.
Maddie, a resident caregiver for children with developmental disabilities in Vineland, NJ, made the bus trip down with AFSCME Local 2215.
"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 a rare disease -- she doesn't have any healthcare," she said. "It's more important than getting a raise, or making extra money. We fight health issues every day of our life... The private companies aren't necessarily gonna give us that healthcare, the public option makes sure it's for all. I just hope my brothers and sisters make a statement today and do what we came here to do -- convince Congress."
Ronald, a splicer for Verizon, came from Wilmington, Delaware with CWA local 13100.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done. Everybody needs to rally together and get this," he said. "We're in America -- strongest nation in the world. We shouldn't be going through this -- with all these people not being able to take care of their family members .... We vote these guys in to do a job -- not to leave their state, come down here to DC, and then all of a sudden they flip the script, they have their own agendas."
Congressman Charles Rangel told the crowd that their efforts were historic, drawing a parallel to the March on Washington.
"Civil rights without the right to health -- you can't use it much," he said. "Remember this day the same way we remember the day that we marched down here with Dr. Martin Luther King. No one knew how important that march was....One day you'll tell your kids and your grandkids that have healthcare, 'Enjoy that, but don't take it for granted because [I] came to Washington on a hot, June day'...."
Senator Charles Schumer -- who has taken a leading role in speaking out for a public plan option (in contrast to weak substitutes like Democratic Senator Kent Conrad's regional coops) -- also fired up the crowd. He called for a public option that isn't "diluted" and told the people to "hold [Congress'] feet to the fire" in this "long, hard fight."
Actress Edie Falco -- a breast cancer survivor -- talked about her past as an unemployed actress who needed to make the same tough choices so many people are forced to make today.
"It's bad enough the emotional impact of not having a job, but to get sick on top of that, and worry every day that [you're] not getting better, figuring out what you're gonna have to do without so you can afford a doctor's visit," she said. "I'm far more familiar with that than I am with my situation these last number of years. I'm here on behalf 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 their families."
The rally lasted for about an hour and a half, then folks headed to lobby their legislators or attend town meetings. Pennsylvania -- which had 2,000 people who came down in 36 buses or carpools -- packed the main floor of the Capitol City Brewing Company and its balconies with hundreds of rank and file union members. (There were definitely more than 700 people -- the official capacity of the establishment.) There was word that Senator Arlen Specter was on his way, and with his plans for reelection hinging on Democrats who were unsure about his position on the public plan option and the Employee Free Choice Act, there was quite a buzz.
He kept getting delayed, however, and most were predicting he wouldn't show. In the meantime, Congresswoman Allison Schwartz stopped in to pledge her continued support for this cause. So did Sen. Specter's rumored challenger in a Democratic primary, Congressman Joe Sestak.
Rep. Sestak told the crowd that while his opposition to the Iraq War is often reported as the reason he ran for Congress in 2006, his primary motivation was the debt he feels to the nation for the healthcare he and his family received while he was in the military.
Four years ago his daughter was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and given just months to give. But she received the best possible treatment and she is now eight years old. Her roommate her first day in the hospital -- a two year old boy with acute leukemia -- didn't have insurance and treatment was much more difficult to obtain. That was when Sestak began to focus on healthcare for all Americans. He said he's in this fight as "payback to the citizens of this nation" who provided the care his family needed.
The crowd began to disperse as people gave up on Sen. Specter. But about three hours after the meeting began, he showed -- having been delayed, 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 Senator Specter finally stepped to the mic he said, "I compliment you on your tenacity.... And I think Sen. Schumer has the right idea about having a public component which has a level playing field with the private sector."
While it's good news that Sen. Specter called for the public option that Senator Schumer hours earlier said can't be "diluted", we know this is far from a done deal.
It would be good to see President Obama tap into the grassroots energy that brought so many to Washington yesterday. Congress now begins a recess that runs through Fourth of July weekend, and Pres. Obama should barnstorm around the country for the robust public option he wants. With his approval rating remaining high, and 72 percent of the country wanting a public plan, he can tap real momentum which could decide this debate.
Too many craven Democrats are still talking compromise in an effort to win 60 votes. We don't need a few out-of-touch Republicans. What we need is real health care reform that includes the public option, and it can 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 fighting like hell -- just like the good people who came to Washington to make their voices heard yesterday.