About 650 people - diverse in age, race, and occupation, but nearly all supporters of a health-care overhaul - last night crowded into a Center City church for a town meeting with U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) that, in sharp contrast to recent gatherings across the country, was overwhelmingly civil.
Many said they went to Broad Street Ministry because they felt their point of view wasn't being heard.
"We just haven't been getting our story told," said Antoinette Kraus, an organizer with Health Care for America Now. "The supporters of health reform have been missing from the debate. We support Obama's health-care plan, and we can't wait any longer for reform."
Kraus and scores of supporters were in Lebanon, Pa., on Tuesday when opponents of health-care change shouted down U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) at a town-hall meeting there.
She said she and other supporters had been shut out of that meeting. So the group told supporters get to the church early last night. By 6:20, the church was at capacity and a line to get in stretched for more than a block.
"The strategy today was to get people here early to try to counteract the booing and hissing that Sen. Specter received in Lebanon," said Katy Weeks, another Health Care Now organizer.
Those on both sides were reasonable and well-behaved.
For example, outside the church before the doors opened, Pat Noble, 56, of Lansdowne, manned the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee table that held handouts depicting Obama with a Hitler-style moustache. Behind her was a sign emblazoned, "Stop Obama's Killer Health Care Reform."
A few feet away, several hundred attendees, some holding large signs advocating change, stood waiting to enter the church.
That's when a frustrated Ron Alberti, 72, a retired construction contractor from South Philadelphia, who said he staunchly opposes congressional-led health-care change because "the government is doing nothing right in this country," came to Noble's table.
"You got a big sign I can hold up?" he asked. "They all have big signs. I need a big sign."
Noble said she didn't, but offered him some Obama-as-Hitler literature.
"I don't want to hold up a picture of Hitler," said Alberti. "Let's be sensible."
Inside, things for the most part ran smoothly, with Sestak fielding questions. He said that the current system was unsustainable, that it was costing America billions in lost productivity, that it was right and moral to extend coverage to millions of uninsured, and that he believed the change would make health care more competitive.
A focused, if a bit contentious, question came from a man who, like Sestak, had served in the Navy and wanted to know if Sestak would "lead by example" by forgoing the top-shelf coverage he gets as a military vet and member of Congress, and enroll his family in a proposed "public option" that would be available to ordinary citizens.
"I'll see how it is, and I'll make my choice," said Sestak.
The questioner was unsatisfied with that answer, so Sestak elaborated.
The decision, he said, will depend on whether he can still have access to the pediatric oncologist who treated his daughter Alex, who was 41/2 when she was diagnosed with a frequently fatal strain of cancer.
"As long as that doctor takes care of my daughter," said Sestak, "I don't have a problem being in" the public plan.
A "public option" is among the more controversial proposals. In short, it would set up a government-run insurance plan to compete with commercial plans.
The concept, according to congressional supporters, is to add choices for consumers, to create competition for commercial insurance companies, and to control costs.
Critics, however, say the public option would have an unfair advantage and eventually drive insurance companies out of business.
Still, many experts say the public plan is a long way from getting into the final bill that lands on President Obama's desk.
Last night's town hall stood in sharp contrast to Specter's experience at Pennsylvania State University earlier yesterday. For a second day, Specter heard boos and jeers of people protesting Democratic proposals.
"I've taken the temperature of these hearings, and it's 213 degrees Fahrenheit," Specter quipped to 400 people who jammed a ballroom at a campus hotel. Water, he noted, boils at 212.
Specter told reporters that those who were interrupting discussion of the health-care issue were "not representative of the American people" but deserve to be heard.
Gov. Rendell yesterday agreed with Specter.
"There is no question that it is being whipped up, but there is also no question that there is a lot of anger, legitimate anger, and fear out there of the unknown," Rendell said, referring to the health-care proposals. "The people that go to these meetings are not crazy. They have a legitimate fear of change, and don't understand the plan."
Among those with a stake in how the debate pans out is Joe Hardy, 25, of South Philadelphia, who attended last night's session.
"I'm uninsured," said the substitute schoolteacher. "I need insurance. . . . I'm from England, and I know there's problems with nationalized health care. The public option is probably the best idea in a capitalist country."
Greta Scriboni of West Chester, looking around the crowded church, said, "I may be the only opponent of reform in here."
She said she came on her own, not part of any group, because she believes current proposals are "moving the country in a socialist direction."
Gloria Richardson from Upper Dublin came, she said, because she's a big supporter of Sestak - who is challenging Specter in next year's Democratic senatorial primary - and because she believes most of the hecklers at other town meetings are "just angry that Obama won the election" and "are afraid of change."
"We like the public option, and we think it should be included with the exchange," Richardson said. "If private industry is so great, they should be able to compete."