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Feingold stops in county to listen to constituents

Darla Meyers of Hudson protested outside New Richmond High School prior to Wednesday's appearance by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold. Photo by Jeff Holmquist

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold knew what he was in for as he walked toward New Richmond High School last Wednesday.

Feingold had scheduled his St. Croix County listening session in the school's auditorium the morning of Aug. 26 and a large crowd had assembled.

Like at several previous gatherings in other parts of the state, Feingold realized the majority of the people in the crowd were there to talk about health care reform.

Similar town-hall-type meetings across the nation have resulted in everything from shouting matches to lengthy civil discussions. The New Richmond event ended up having a little of both.

Feingold shrugged when asked what awaited him inside.

He said he's not surprised that people are engaged in the debate over health care, but it's not the only issue to ever have stirred up such emotion.

As he opened the listening session about 15 minutes early, Feingold injected a little humor into the room.

There's a rumor that the subject of health care could come up here, he said. I don't know.

The audience responded with laughter.

In fact, health care is the issue that has most come up in the 17 years I've been doing these meetings, he said.

Feingold then opened the floor to the raucous crowd of about 150 people. Names were selected at random to establish the order of comments and questions.

While health care debate took up the majority of the nearly two-hour exchange, other issues of concern for those who spoke included U.S. relations with Israel, the climbing federal debt, cap and trade legislation, voter identification and abortion.

William Derrick, former owner of Derrick Construction, asked Feingold if he would support a continuation of the first-time-homebuyer tax credits that are helping pull the home building industry out of the doldrums.

He said his family's company once employed 100 people, but now they're down to 40 and many of those are working part time.

I'd like to see it continue, Feingold responded. I think it's helped our economy.

Audience members wasted no time before voicing their opinions on health care reform. Some said they oppose government-controlled health care, while others applauded efforts to provide a public option for health coverage.

While Feingold tried his best to keep the discussion moving ahead and in a civil manner, at times audience members shouted down those who were speaking or yelled out comments while others were speaking.

Ingrid Kizen, New Richmond, spoke in favor of congressional efforts to reform health care. She said the existing federal health plans (including the Veterans Administration and Medicare) work well, so there's no reason to believe a new single-payer system open to everyone won't work.

Some applauded her comment. Others booed.

Barb Wetzel, Osceola, commented that those opposed to the cost of health care reform are barking up the wrong tree.

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were ended, there would be more than enough money to afford a universal plan, she said.

Lorraine Goodlad, Star Prairie, refuted estimates that 47 million people are without health care coverage due to high costs.

Included in that estimated number are illegal immigrants and those people who choose not to be covered, she said.

Taking those two groups out of the equation, Goodlad said, leaves maybe 5 million uninsured in the nation. She said the cost of the current public health reform proposal is too high when it only solves the problem for 5 million people.

Susan Mahle, Osceola, a former physician, said she was absolutely opposed to the current health care reform bill in Congress and any proposal that would have the government involved in health coverage.

In her experience with such programs as Medicare, Mahle said, government oversight leads to piles of paperwork, which forces doctors to spend less time on care and more time on administrative chores.

Martin Boomsma, Roberts, urged the senator to vote against any measure that would raise taxes or increase the national debt.

Marita Beaudette, Amery, said the public option is too expensive and should not be considered.

We need some reform, not dramatic change, she said.

After chastising Feingold for conducting his listening session during the time of the day when most people were at work, Warren Howe, Star Prairie, said he's fed up with politicians throwing away his hard-earned money.

He urged Congress to fix the problems in the health care system without resorting to a publicly funded option.

Leonard Swenson, Osceola, agreed. He said Canada's health care system doesn't work and taxes are higher there because of universal coverage.

If anything is going to kill the economy it's more taxes, he added.

Tom Dove, a Somerset businessman, added his voice to those who thought expected tax hikes would be a big mistake. He's grown his business from one up to 55 employees, he said, but the cost of doing business is making it tougher to make ends meet.

Taxes are going to get to the point where I'm going to have to lay people off, he said.

Responding to question about how high the federal deficit should rise, Feingold said he hopes that the eventual reform package will force the current health care system to operate more efficiently, and the public option will also operate efficiently. The hope is that an eventual bill will not raise taxes or the deficit, he said.

One debate continued throughout the listening session with no clear answer. Feingold said surveys indicate that a majority of Americans want a public health care option approved. Many in attendance quoted surveys that show a majority are opposed to the idea.

In closing, Feingold thanked everyone for the lively discussion.

This actually is democracy and I'm proud to be part of a system of government where this is what we do, he said, as several in the audience jeered.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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