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Healthcare debate: point of view from the hot seat

Congressman Joe Donnelly, a Blue Dog Democrat from Indiana, has both a personal and political stake in the matter. 'I don't know what's the right thing to do yet.'

August 15, 2009|P.J. Huffstutter

KOKOMO, IND. — The jeering crowd at the town hall meeting with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly was sending a clear message that it wasn't happy with the government's ideas on healthcare reform.

Amid the grumbling, Donnelly told the crowd about the problems his 27-year-old daughter has had in finding health insurance. Molly has rheumatoid arthritis and needs $1,500 worth of medication each month. He remembered calling insurance companies to get Molly a policy -- and being denied.

The twin tugs on Donnelly showed what it's like to sit in one of the hottest hot seats of American politics. Donnelly, a sophomore congressman in a politically split stretch of northern Indiana, is part of that vulnerable group of Democrats who have yet to decide how they will vote on healthcare reform.

"I'll do the best I can, but I don't know what's the right thing to do yet," Donnelly said after the town hall. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't even know what we're going to be voting on."

Donnelly, a member of the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, is against any plan that would increase the country's mounting deficit. He supports the public having equal access to medical care.

He calls his vote "more than a yes-no -- it's more of an obligation. To my children. To my grandchildren. To everyone."

His desire to gauge voters' temperature and keep an open mind has turned his summer recess into chaos.

No matter how he votes, Donnelly will probably alienate many constituents. "It's a sobering process," he said. "I feel a tremendous responsibility."

In his South Bend district office, the daily postal delivery, normally less than an inch thick, is nearly half a foot deep. The eight staffers use their cellphones to call out because the four office lines are jammed.

Police details have become routine for his recent travels across the district's 12 counties. His wife wanted to join him at this first town hall, at Inventrek Technology Park in Kokomo. He told her to stay away.

Donnelly returned to Indiana from Washington on July 31 with plans to talk about healthcare, but also jobs and the economy. Indiana's sprawling 2nd District has some of the nation's highest rates of unemployment. It is a mix of farm towns and economically devastated manufacturing hubs including Elkhart to the north and Kokomo to the south.

He did what he's done for the last three years: hold meetings with constituents at Martin's Super Markets. In the past, Donnelly said, typically a dozen people would come to air concerns at a table in the deli.

Last Saturday morning, Donnelly pulled up to a Martin's store in Mishawaka. Fifty people were outside screaming at one another and waving signs favoring or protesting the healthcare plan. Inside, 250 people crammed the aisles.

The supermarket owner called Donnelly's office afterward: He couldn't use the stores anymore.

Donnelly's days, normally long, have stretched into 14 hours. Wednesday, the day of his first town hall, was even longer. There were meetings talking healthcare at the South Bend Clinic; with real estate agents and small-business owners; with reporters; and with the occasional pedestrian. Along the way, he kept asking himself about the legislation.

"Is it fair? Is it right?" Donnelly said. "I always remember that no matter which way I vote, whatever happens, this is going to have a lot of ramifications for years to come."

That tension was evident at the town hall. His staff had reserved a room with 72 seats. By the time Donnelly arrived, building management had moved the event outside: 500 people were waiting.

The congressman rolled up his shirt sleeves and took the microphone.

"I want to thank everyone for coming out," Donnelly said. "What you're going to find is there are people you agree with and people you don't agree with, and booing and yelling doesn't help the cause."

Donnelly turned to Norma Johnson, who was standing a few feet away. Her grandson had an undiagnosed heart condition, she said. He couldn't get treatment approved by the insurance company to see a specialist. He died at 17.

"My daughter had insurance, and now my grandson's been dead one year and eight months," said Johnson, 63, a criminal justice professor at Indiana University in Kokomo. "I want this bill to pass."

Donnelly stood silent before the sobbing woman. People pressed in all around him, reaching for the microphone to ask questions, some waving signs: "No No No Heath Care Plan" and "Help Me, Vote Yes."

Donnelly took a deep breath and stepped into the crowd.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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