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Opponents of Democratic health care overhaul pack South County ballroom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 15, 2010 - Hundreds of local opponents of the Democratic effort to revamp the nation's health-insurance system packed a south St. Louis County ballroom Thursday night to reaffirm their concerns and plot their next political moves.

Most came at the behest of local lawyer/GOP activist Ed Martin, a declared candidate for the 3rd District congressional seat now held by Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.

The parade of local residents who took their turn at the microphone included several who called the Democratic-led health-care effort illegal. Others, including Martin, called it a costly power grab. The audience rose in a standing ovation when one woman accused President Barack Obama of creating "a communist oligarchy."

Martin had organized the town hall, to which he'd also invited Carnahan, saying that the congressman needed to hear from critics before he casts his next vote on health care. But the crowd gathered at the Two Hearts Banquet Center (which is not in Carnahan's district) didn't seem surprised that Carnahan declined to show. Martin's campaign was videotaping all the speakers (some of which also did not live in the 3rd District) so their remarks will air on the internet.

The congressman -- who generally supports the Democratic effort -- noted in an interview earlier this week that he'd conducted his own set of public sessions on health care for more than a year.

(Meanwhile, Carnahan's staff sent out a release and photos Thursday showing his focus on Haiti in the aftermath of Tuesday's destructive earthquake. Carnahan is chairman of the International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight Subcommittee.)

Thursday's town hall crowd included some Republican politicians and activists, including state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay. He said in an interview that the size of the gathering underscored the public's opposition to what is happening in Congress.

Amid cheers, Martin promised the crowd that he'll work to repeal the changes if he succeeds in defeating Carnahan. Martin said his aim will be to "get us back to where we were" before the Democrats proposed changing the nation's health-care setup.

However, Martin did emphasize that he supported some health-care changes. Small businesses need to be able to pool their resources to purchase coverage, he said, and the public needs to be able to purchase insurance across state lines. Both changes would lower insurance costs by forcing competition among insurance companies, Martin said.

And he didn't embrace the usual GOP stand in favor of national changes in lawsuits, which advocates call "tort reform." Martin, a lawyer, said laws governing lawsuits need to remain at the state level.

In the short run, said Martin, critics' best hopes may lie in "finding ways to throw sand in the gears of the implementation."

Several in the crowd also called for prayers for the success Tuesday in Massachusetts of the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, Scott Brown, who's in the midst of a tight special-election contest with Democrat Martha Coakley. The victor will fill the seat that had been held by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass, a longtime advocate of expanding the public's access to health care.

If Brown wins, said Martin, Democrats will no longer have 60 Senate votes and the health-care bill will be dead.

Also addressing the crowd was one Democrat: St. Louis photographer Edward Crim. He told the crowd that he plans to file for office next month to challenge Carnahan in the August primary. Crim called for critics to view the Democratic primary as a chance to "put Russ Carnahan out of business before the November election."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.