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COLUMN ONE

Back home, defending their healthcare votes

For three lawmakers -- one who opposed the bill, one who supported it and one who changed his mind -- it's time to explain themselves to uneasy constituents.

April 12, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Geraldine Baum and Mark Z. Barabak
  • Tom Perriello (D-Va.) defends his support of the healthcare bill at a town hall for seniors.
Tom Perriello (D-Va.) defends his support of the healthcare bill at a town… (Rod Lamkey Jr. / Washington…)

Reporting from Charlottesville, Va., Murrieta, Calif., and New York -- The congressional battle over healthcare may have ended, but not the political fight.

With Congress in recess, members trooped home over the last two weeks to discuss what, for many, could be the most consequential vote of their careers. They explained, defended and sometimes distorted the content of the mammoth bill, now federal law, and what it means for their eager, anxious and often just plain confused constituents.

Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello's family was targeted by vandals after he voted yes, but outraged supporters in his Republican-leaning district rallied behind him. Palm Springs Republican Mary Bono Mack stuck by her staunch opposition, even as contributions poured in for her Democratic rival. New York Democrat Michael Arcuri managed to antagonize both sides -- backing the bill, then opposing final passage -- and now worries about releasing his public schedule.

One thing these lawmakers share is a conviction they were right, whatever happens politically.

"There is no greater net positive than believing in what you did," Bono Mack said.

"I didn't go to Washington to stay in Washington," Perriello said. "I went to Washington to help make people's lives better. We've done something that folks have tried for a century and failed to do."

Now the sales job begins.

Tom Perriello

The doughnut holes were next to the coffee at the senior center, a gastronomic aid to pitch the healthcare bill in southern Virginia, where Tom Perriello is in serious trouble.

They were supposed to represent the Medicare "doughnut hole," a coverage gap that the law closes to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. Perriello brought nine dozen to his Charlottesville town hall last week, but the symbolism was lost on Anne Prang, 88, who thanked the congressman afterward "for those funny little cakes."

Nothing about the healthcare overhaul has been easy. For Perriello, a freshman who won by 727 votes, it has brought mostly political heartburn.

Sarah Palin put him on her Facebook hit list; seven GOP challengers are lined up hoping to knock him off. Phones in his five offices were jammed for months. His brother's house was vandalized with a severed gas line after critics posted the address, thinking it was the congressman's.

To look at him -- 35, compact, neatly coiffed -- Perriello does not appear besieged. A Yale-educated lawyer and conflict resolution expert, he was part of a showdown that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor from power without a shot fired. Tense situations don't rattle him, like the 21 town halls last August that were supposed to be a "listening tour." People mostly yelled at him.

This audience is friendly. About 75 seniors are in the room and an additional 5,000 listen by phone. Last summer's vitriol has given way to questions about how the law works. But the anger hasn't gone away so much as gone underground. A few nights before, local "tea party" activists gathered in a member's garage and suggested Perriello deserved a second term -- "in jail."

The venom has mobilized supporters. "I felt awful," said Joan Miller, 73, a retired nurse who called Perriello's office to apologize for the conduct of some people. "Now I'm going to fight harder."

The road to November is steep in this richly historic district, where Lee surrendered to Grant. Perriello eked out his victory thanks to a strong turnout by African American and first-time voters attracted by Barack Obama, who won't be on the ballot this time.

His voting record -- yes on healthcare, economic stimulus and a measure to fight global warming -- seems like a political death wish in these conservative parts. Perriello's already lost people like Charlottesville Republican Stacy Erickson, 45, stocking up on supplies for her home-repair business at Wal-Mart. "I voted for him and I regret it," she said.

Voter confusion is as big a challenge as voter anger. Carol Verberg, 61, a retired medical records clerk, likes Obama so much she has a 12-inch commemorative plate in her living room. But when it comes to healthcare, she isn't sure. "I just don't know that much about it," she said. "I have to see how it affects me. I don't care about anybody else. I want my same insurance, but I want the premiums to go down."

Perriello's plan is to go out and explain the law with the same grass-roots outreach that helped him pull off one of the biggest upsets of 2008. "Eventually," he believes, "the opposition's sound bites will ring hollow."

Michael Arcuri

Flip-flopper, opportunist, traitor, panderer, coward -- the epithets are flying in upstate New York over Mike Arcuri's healthcare vote.

The two-term Democratic congressman tried to explain his about-face on Facebook: why he liked the government-run plan in the House bill he supported and not the effect on small business, the middle class and seniors in the Senate bill he opposed. But it's not clear it helped.

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