FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Taking a page from the tea party activists who hammered Democrats at their town hall meetings two summers ago, liberal partisans are making signs, preparing pointed questions, and turning out for Republican congressional town hall meetings.
They're hoping to score political points and also seeking political gold — embarrassing YouTube moments.
Tuesday night was U.S. Rep. Allen West's turn.
A small contingent of protesters showed up two hours before his monthly Broward County town hall meeting. Inside, they disrupted the town hall several times.
Just a minute or two after West started speaking, a handful of people scattered throughout the theater at Calvary Chapel began shouting questions such as, "How about our Medicare that you're stealing?"
Another yelled an objection to West's requirement that questioners submit written questions on cards, a change from his previous practice of allowing questioners to line up at microphones.
The protesters were escorted out by a Fort Lauderdale police sergeant to cheers — and epithets — from the crowd.
Later, when West was discussing the Republican position on Medicare, he was interrupted by Nicole Sandler of Coral Springs, who was a host on the now-defunct liberal Air America radio network.
When she didn't heed calls to stop talking — "shut up, lady" one person yelled — she was removed by police as people recorded the scene with camera phones. Sandler continued to object as she was led out, argued with the officer, and was arrested for trespassing.
Democrats plan to go after West again Wednesday at a Palm Beach County town hall. On Thursday, their target is U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta.
Similar actions have taken place across the country against leading Republicans such as House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. At U.S. Rep. Dan Webster's town hall Tuesday in Orlando, members of the crowd shouted down the freshman Republican congressman.
"It's certainly fair. They have a perfect right to holler at politicians," said Kevin Hill, a political scientist at Florida International University. "It's not exactly a genius move. It's not something that you would need Aristotle to tell you to do."
Democrats are portraying the actions as a grassroots awakening, the same way tea party activists depicted their moves in 2009 and 2010, but none of it is a coincidental outpouring.
Activists urged the protesters and questioners to turn out Tuesday with e-mailed instructions including the kind of signs, tone of questioning and advice to seize the opportunity to speak.
In 2009, the organization Conservatives for Patients' Rights, founded and funded by Rick Scott — who subsequently was elected Florida governor — pushed people to turn out en masse at congressional town halls to protest health care overhaul.
"It's a total reversal of what has been happening before," said Tony Fransetta of Wellington, president of the Florida chapter of the Alliance for Retired Americans, most of whose members are AFL-CIO retirees. "All politics is tactical, whether it's the Democrats or the Republicans trying to find the best political advantage out of a situation."
The script Tuesday sounds like the mirror image of the April 5, 2010, Fort Lauderdale town hall held by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. Supporters and opponents wielded signs, and Wasserman Schultz critics aggressively voiced their opinions — along with frequent shouts of "you lie" or "liar."
The droves who showed up to criticize the proposed health care overhaul legislation in summer 2009 produced big political consequences. Democrats were left reeling for months. Many switched from the traditional in-person town hall meetings to telephone town halls.
In 2009 and 2010, anti-Democratic protesters said they were motivated by concerns over health care legislation and federal spending, not simply to cause trouble for incumbent members of Congress.
Today, Democrats say the same thing. Joanne Goodwin, president of the North Broward Democratic Club, said she was motivated by issues such as the future of Medicare when she urged people to turn out for West's town hall.
Still, she hopes the Democrats score some points. "Does it help? If somebody's going to go out there and make an emotional decision, hopefully they'll make one for the Democrats."
Karin Hoffman, founder of the tea party affiliated group DC Works For US, said efforts to adapt the same tactics this year won't work. "It's not organic," she said. "When you're trying to orchestrate something it comes across as shallow."
Robert Watson, a political scientist at Lynn University in Boca Raton, said the strategy is likely to pay off for the Democrats even if Republicans don't lose their cool.
"With YouTube and Twitter
and the fact that everything is viral and everyone has a cell phone that can capture video … it's not even West. It's the image of people yelling, 'I can't get my Medicare when I'm 80,'" Watson said. "People don't always vote with their heads. They sometimes vote with their hearts. Image matters."
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