Saturday, March 27, 2010

AFP State Director on Apologizing to Man with Parkinson's: "It's not Something that I've Considered"

On March 21, 2010, the Health Care Reform legislation was signed into law after a contentious and heated year of debate that gave way to the rise of the Tea Party movement.

As health care reform became the primary target of this movement, we saw Fox News and the Republican Party latch onto this rage and harness it into a well promoted and corporate sponsored Conservative machine. This machine rolled through the country, turning out large crowds who carried signs declaring that we were being taken over by Communists and who showed up to health care town hall meetings to shout down members of Congress who supported any and all versions of proposed health care legislation.

During the past year, this Tea Party movement has continually claimed that they are a grassroots movement of concerned patriots, but as has been highlighted on this blog as well as in other media outlets, Republican backed corporate dollars have played a large role in assuring that the Tea Party momentum continues to build.

This momentum and this outrage that has been primarily directed at the Obama Administration and at progressives in general, has also been adopted by Republican politicians for reasons that are self-explanatory. The result of so many interests trying to work within the same movement has resulted in a brand of schizophrenic conservatism that mixes (what started out as) a primarily Libertarian movement and the politics of traditional Republican Party from the last few decades.

After a year of promotion by a major news channel and lots of Republican money being pumped into this cause, it is clear that those traditional Republican interests appear to be having an impact. Locally, members of the Cincinnati Tea Party have held rallies at which former Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) spoke. Many members of the tea party that I have talked to are advocating voting to put the long-time Republican Party member back into Congress in order to get Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) out. I have also talked with members of the tea party who feel that it is not a viable strategy to back more Libertarian-based third party candidates. Instead, it is clear that getting Democrats out of Congress is the priority, even if it means putting familiar Republican faces back into power.

While the confusion and internal struggles of the Tea Party movement are sometimes disguised, what has been most noticeable over this past year has been the anger and sometimes violent rhetoric. Locally, I documented some of the behavior that was evident at local town hall meetings and nationally we have seen racist, homophobic and violent rhetoric directed at those with who this movement disagrees. This behavior continued right up until (and ever since) the passage of this bill.

The Saturday before the House of Representative passed the legislation, there was a "Hands off my Healthcare" rally in Columbus, Ohio that was organized by Americans for Prosperity. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has been one of the groups that has been instrumental in keeping the tea party momentum rolling by using their corporate funds and expert PR personnel to whip up the anger. Rachel Maddow:

This is what these groups do. They're experts at fake grass roots campaigns that promote corporate interests. Americans for Prosperity is the group that ginned up anti-stimulus rallies earlier this year. They also organized what they called the "Hot Air Tour" to campaign against the whole idea of global warming. They were the ones who sent Joe the Plumber around the country to rail against the Employee Free Choice Act, which is pro-labor legislation.

This oil industry and Republican operative billionaires club is according to the Republican party spokesman today, just average middle class Americans. Just regular American folks sitting around the kitchen table thinking about whether they can get away with saying that the government, continuing its long standing policy of encouraging living wills, is really a secret plot to kill old people.


These guys are the pros. This is an industry. Americans are showing up at these events to shout down the discussion, to chase their Congressmen, and they are enraged. And they're enraged at least in part because they're being riled up by over the top, fabricated conspiracy theories about health care. And they're being directed and orchestrated by the corporate interests that do this for a living and do it very well.

At this "Hands off my Health Care" rally in Columbus, an incident transpired that has been widely circulated. Bob Letcher, a 60-year-old man with Parkinson's Disease, was mocked, yelled at and had dollar bills thrown at him by anti-reformers as he sat quietly with his sign advocating his support for health care reform. Video from The Columbus Dispatch captured the scene:

Following this event, the State Director for AFP Rebecca Heimlich, told Talking Points Memo:

"I have seen the video and found the man's behavior completely inappropriate. Americans for Prosperity certainly does not encourage or condone harassing behavior. Our goal is to send a message to Rep. Kilroy that we oppose this health care takeover bill. We always encourage our members to be considerate of others in their demonstrations."

I caught up with Heimlich after a Conservative-sponsored candidates forum the other evening to ask about AFP's future plans, but also to ask whether AFP was going to apologize to Mr. Letcher for the behavior of individuals at an event which they sponsored. The full interview is below and the specific question about Letcher is at about 1:35 into the clip:

(Note: I refer to Bob Letcher as "Bob Letchman" during this interview. That was my spoken mistake. I also mention that Letcher had described the movement as being "cultivatively violent or harsh or something along those lines." Letcher's quote is "cultivatively angry" and can be found here.)

In short, Heimlich did not know if it would "be appropriate" for AFP to issue Letcher an apology because it was not clear that the "man in the white shirt" was a member of her organization. She also stated that she didn't know if it would be AFP's "responsibility" to issue an apology due to this event having many sponsors.

Heimlich also stated that she does not think that this movement is primarily violent or angry and that she has not seen any other inappropriate behavior at her events. She also said that she thinks it is good for people to express their opinions in a respectful way and even went as far as calling a moment where two sides were yelling at each other "substantive debate".

Since my interview with Heimlich, the "man in the white shirt" has been identified as Chris Reichert and interviewed by the Columbus Dispatch. In his interview, he told the paper that he was sorry:

"He's got every right to do what he did and some may say I did too, but what I did was shameful," Reichert said. "I haven't slept since that day."

"I made a donation (to a local Parkinson's disease group) and that starts the healing process."

As Reichert begins his own healing process, groups like AFP continue to forge ahead in attempts to make health care an issue in upcoming elections. The fact still remains however that the Conservative and Tea Party movements are still trying to figure out if they are really Libertarians or Republicans with a new populist message. This disconnect was illustrated at the end of my interview with Heimlich:

CB: Do you think Glenn Beck is a positive voice for your movement?

RH: ...I don't watch that show, so I can't really tell you if I think he is or not because [...] I don't know that much about him...

CB: Is there any differentiation you think between the 9/12 groups and the Tea Party groups or is it pretty much...?

RH: From what I have seen in Ohio, they all work together I mean they are all part of the Ohio Liberty Council, so I have not seen any differentiation.

So the Tea Party movement is no different from the 9/12 movement. Glenn Beck motivates the 9/12 Movement with his show much like AFP motivates Tea Party groups with their rallies, yet Heimlich doesn't know if Beck is a positive voice for her movement? Schizophrenic Conservatism indeed.

This piece is cross posted here.

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