MANATEE — As Rep. Vern Buchanan prepares to hear feedback from constituents about health care and the economy today, organizers hope the fireworks seen at similar events nationwide don’t overwhelm the town hall meeting.
“The congressman will encourage people to be respectful of one another’s views and is hopeful that we’ll have a positive discussion,” said Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts. “He’ll set the tone.”
Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has sponsored seven other town hall meetings this year, though today’s event will be his first during the August recess. It is scheduled for 4 p.m. at the Braden River High School auditorium, 6545 State Road 70 E.
Other town halls have not gone as smoothly. Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor had to be escorted from a town hall in Tampa earlier this month after violence broke out in the crowd. One protester in Phoenix brought an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to a speech by President Barack Obama.
Christine Prazeres is one of the conservative activists who plan to attend today’s meeting. She has been e-mailing fellow conservatives to show up and voice their opposition to legislation that would create a government-funded health insurance option.
“I don’t justify any kind of violence of any sort,” said Prazeres, who is the assistant state director for the group Patriotic Resistance. “But the anger, the shouting, the people getting upset, I think it’s very good for America.”
Larry Miller, chairman of the Manatee County Democratic Party, said he expects dozens of other progressives to attend the event.
“I assume people will be able to go ahead and speak their minds,” he said. “As long as certain decorum can be held, then I think it’s a positive thing for our community.”
Besides Patriotic Resistance, conservative groups such as the 912 Project and FreedomWorks have encouraged people to show up to town hall meetings. Liberal groups such as Organizing for America and the Service Employees International Union have also organized at other events.
Manatee sheriff’s deputies will provide security at the auditorium, which can hold 700 people.
“We don’t really have any reason to believe it won’t be peaceful,” said sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow. “Most of them have been, it’s just you don’t hear about those. You hear about the ones that get out of hand.”
University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said it’s hard to tell if the crowd at Buchanan’s event will be civil or disruptive.
“Predicting what’s going to happen at a town hall meeting these days is treacherous,” she said.
Republicans like Buchanan might not get much opposition from conservative activists, MacManus said. But liberal-leaning groups have recently started turning out more attendees at other town halls.
“My guess is you’re going to be dealing with a very passionate, informed, older electorate,” she said. “My guess is the questions will be very intense.”
Passionate responses to the health care debate have already popped up on what can be considered an electronic town hall, Buchanan’s Facebook page. The congressman recently added a link to an op-ed article he wrote about the issue.
“You write about not putting health care decisions in the hands of Washington bureaucrats,” writes Dave Hilsheimer, of Bradenton. “What about the insurance company bureaucrats who deny or exclude coverage because of a pre-existing condition?”
Chris Cantwell of Bradenton adds: “There is ZERO Constitutional authority for the government to become the competition in any industry.”
Besides health care legislation, Prazeres also plans to discuss her opposition to other policies supported by Obama, such as the cap-and-trade bill passed by the House in June and last fall’s bank bailout.
“This is the straw that has broken the camel’s back,” she said. “I don’t understand this idea coming from this administration that we have to fundamentally change America.”
Miller said he hopes to make a moral case for providing insurance coverage to the millions of Americans who don’t have it. But he said his main goal at today’s event is to correct misleading statements that have been injected into the debate.
“We want to debunk the myths of grandma being sent to a death panel, the issue revolving around abortion and immigrants being a part of the bill,” he said.