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In wake of violence, U. City schools cancel McCaskill healthcare forum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 7, 2009 - The University City school district has canceled a healthcare forum with Sen. Claire McCaskill scheduled for Tuesday because of the "escalation of violence" at such meetings across the country, a school spokesman said late Friday.

The word came as the St. Louis Tea Party  prepared for a noon rally on Saturday outside the St. Louis offices of the Service Employees International Union as a follow-up to the two sides' confrontation at U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan's forum Thursday night.

At U. City, spokesman Jim Jennings said the school district apologized to McCaskill for the short notice and hopes it can host an event in the future. But for now, he said, "our main focus is safety and security."

"Our desire was to help the senator by facilitating this meeting," he said, "because it is an important issue for the community. But we have to put the safety of our students, our staff and our community first.

"Unfortunately, you have people who are intentionally choosing diatribe and disruption over dialogue and discourse."

McCaskill's office said that to provide additional opportunities for people to ask the senator questions about health care, a forum Tuesday afternoon at Jefferson College field house in Hillsboro will be expanded to run from 1-3 p.m.

In the wake of Thursday night's melee at the Carnahan meeting, the Internet is filled with assertions on conservative blogs -- which have made it onto commentator Rush Limbaugh's radio show -- that it was the SEIU activists who elevated the rancor at the forum, held at a middle school in Mehlville.

Saturday's protest is to be at noon outside the SEIU offices in the 5500 block of Pershing Avenue. SEIU officials issued a statement late Friday that asserted, in part, that it was the Tea Party activists who started the violence. (The full statement is near the bottom of this report.) 

Opponents of the Democratic proposals to revamp the nation's health care system have been showing up for weeks at various local events held by Carnahan and McCaskill. Many have shouted their opposition to the members of Congress or their staffs.

But labor activists sympathetic to the Democrats have just begun showing up at such events.

A turning point, says one Democratic source, was the appearance of vocal conservative opponents at Carnahan's event Monday to promote the Cash for Clunkers program. The conservative participants say they've been noisy, but peaceful.

Union allies of Carnahan countered by showing up at Thursday night's forum on elderly issues, to offer support to the congressman in the wake of the vocal conservative opposition. The evening apparently turned into a free-for-all over health care. The congressman had left when both sides tangled outside the school, leading to arrests by the St. Louis County police.

Carnahan spokesman Jim Hubbard said today that the congressman was concerned about the heated confrontations, and that they believed that some of the vocal opposition at his recent events was "linked pretty closely to this national movement."

Although the spokesman said Carnahan has never felt threatened by the vocal opponents at his events, the office opted to keep secret the location of Carnahan's news conference today, in which he discussed Thursday's event. Reporters were notified of the time of today's conference, and instructed to call his staff to learn of the location.

In any event, Hubbard said that the recent round of raucous experiences won't discourage Carnahan from holding public forums. "Open forums and dialogues with people are part of his job," the spokesman said. "We're not going to back away."

All six people arrested Thursday night have been released from custody on their own recognizance pending review of their cases and possible application for warrants, county police said.

Akin Comments

The Carnahan melee is an example of what Rep. Todd Akin talked about earlier this week at a presentation on the health-care and cap-and-trade legislation. He said that congressional leaders had cautioned members that they may want to think twice about holding town hall type meetings during the August recess because of the high level of emotion surrounding health care and other issues.

At one point, he joked to his audience that some members of Congress "almost got lynched" when they tried to hold such meetings -- a comment that drew applause from his audience but heavy criticism on various websites, which criticized him for making light of what could have been a dangerous situation for some of his colleagues.

In an interview Friday morning, Akin talked about how the comment had been taken totally out of context and about the atmosphere in which issues become inflamed, particularly online.

"This is the sort of thing we've seen more and more of," the Town and Country Republican said. "There has been an increase in using blogs to try to take someone out of context, making it seem like they say something they didn't say.

"The audience I had was pretty friendly, but from the blog point of view, they were really trying to say it was an aggressive type of atmosphere. They were saying I was advocating violence, which is the exact opposite of what I was trying to say. I think I was taken 180 degrees out of context."

Akin recalled how his home and the homes of Russ Carnahan and Sen. Claire McCaskill were the targets of spray paint from vandals before the election last November. The vandals painted slogans against the financial bailout approved by Congress -- an ironic move in Akin's case, because he voted against the measure.

He said Friday that he has moved in some cases to having telephone town hall meetings, in part to avoid contentious situations such as the one that developed with Carnahan Thursday night.

Something is lost in such cases, Akin said, because "people want to see their congressman, and they want to hear what he has to say." But he can also reach more people that way, he added, so that tradeoff works to a degree, particularly in the current climate.

"People are pretty worked up," he said. "It's not like I'm advocating anyone should do anything violent. I don't think violence is appropriate, regardless of which political side institutes it."

A spokesman for Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said he had no town hall meetings scheduled for this month but did hold what he called a "tele-town hall" on health-care reform in late July.

Steve Engelhardt said Clay liked that format, where people could join the meeting and ask questions from their homes, because it let the congressman reach more people at one time.

"It’s just a very efficient easy way to reach a lot of people in their homes," Engelhardt said.

Who Is Hosting The Tea Party?

Thursday's fracas renewed attention on the St. Louis Tea Party, a group that didn't exist until shortly before it successfully organized a huge downtown anti-tax rally on April 15 that attracted thousands of like-minded conservatives.

Local businessman Bill Hennessy and radio host/online columnist Dana Loesch are among the organizers.

Hennessy, 49, is an engineer who lives in St. Louis County. Other than a book he wrote in 1993, called the "Conservative Manifesto," Hennessy says he had not been a political activists -- until last February.

That's when Hennessy heard a financial expert on a national cable television show rail against Washington talk at the time of a second stimulus package, while major financial corporations were taking federal money while not changing how they operate.

Hennessy shared those views. He also has watched in horror as, in his opinion, the federal government has grown too big and taken on too much much debt. For example: The federal government should not be involved in the mortgage business, Hennessy said, and shouldn't be rescuing mismanaged corporations. "Nobody is too big to fail," he said.

The St. Louis Tea Party has held a number of events in recent months around the state, he said, but Hennessy emphasized that there is no group hierarchy.

"If anything, we're a website," he said.

Hennessy was at Thursday's event early in the evening, and didn't know of some of the later confrontations and arrests until he saw them on TV. But Hennessy questions some accounts, saying that hand-held video cameras tend to make things look and sound more chaotic than they are.

The speakers at the original April 15 party included Gina Loudon, wife of former state Sen. John Loudon, R-Chesterfield, and an unsuccessful contender last year for his Senate seat.

Since then, Gina Loudon often has served as an unofficial spokeswoman for the group -- but she emphasized Friday that she doesn't hold an official role, and that she didn't really see the St. Louis Tea Party as an organized group.

Rather, it's a movement.

"So many of them are bloggers," Loudon said. "It's really, just people who have their own private issues" with the Obama administration and Democrats controlling Congress.

"They don't like the direction that government is going," Loudon said, whether it be health care, energy policy or taxes.

Moveon Steps Up

On the other side, MoveOn.org was sending out emails Friday that seek donations and call for more visibility by those who support the Obama administration and Democratic policies and proposals. "We've got a plan to fight back against these radical right-wingers. We've hired skilled grassroots organizers. ... And we're building new online tools to track events across the country and make sure MoveOn members turn out at each one," the group said.

As for SEIU, Brandon Davis, executive director of the SEIU Missouri State Council, issued a statement Friday afternoon saying one of their members had been assaulted by Tea Party supporters at the Carnahan event Thursday night.

“SEIU and hardworking women and men all over this country are standing up to their bullying tactics," Davis' statement said. "We deserve a national conversation about how we will fix our failing health care system and help make this an economy that works for everyone.” 

Bob Soutier, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, discounted national reports that union activists planned to be more visible at events hosted by Democratic members of Congress. While not speaking for any individual unions, Soutier said there was definitely no broad coordinated labor effort in the St. Louis area.

That said, he added that union leaders and rank and file are likely to show up at congressional forums because they are deeply interested in the issues, particularly health care -- union members are more likely to have generous health benefits -- and the fate of the nation's auto industry.

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley, who has labor ties, said he thought the aftermath of Thursday's Carnahan forum made both sides look bad.

"It was fitting that it was held at a middle school, because these videos show people on both sides behaving like they were still in middle school," Kelley said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.