A first-term Democratic congresswoman wanted some feedback.
But she got a little more than she bargained for on Wednesday, as about 120 people crowded onto the sidewalk in front of the Safeway for brief, one-on-one conversations with the town-hopping representative.
Some of the people who signed up for a conversation wanted to enlist the congresswoman’s help — like representatives from the Humane Society of Central Arizona who wanted help finding out what had become of their $3-million stimulus grant proposal to build a new animal shelter.
“We’ve got to have (the grant) and the town needs it,” said Ellie Watson, the director of the animal shelter.
But most of the folks milling about, waiting for their turn to buttonhole their representative, just wanted to sound off, often about the economy and health care reform.
“I wanted to see her in person,” said Shirley Weyand, “although I don’t agree with her on a lot of things, she’s done some good things too. I just want to see if she’s against the health care bill, which is a Trojan horse.”
“I want her to promise that she’ll actually read all these bills before voting on them,” said Anne Joachim. “And if they’d just take all the pork out of these bills, there’d be a lot less to read.”
“This is the dumbest forum I’ve ever seen,” said Woody Stewert, of the one-on-one interviews.
“She should have done it in the high school auditorium or something. How on earth is she ever going to get through all of these people?” he asked, with a gesture toward the amiably milling crowd.
Kirkpatrick listened intently to each person, sitting in facing chairs as the bystanders chatted and tried not to eavesdrop.
“If I’m talking, I’m not listening,” she said of the one-on-one format. She said people felt more free to express themselves in a conversation as compared to talking in front of a crowd.
She said people talked about a range of topics. “They have concerns and I share those concerns. I heard some very good ideas. A lot of people said why don’t we fix what we’ve got” before launching major new initiatives.
The first-term former state lawmaker and Flagstaff prosecutor faces a formidable task in consolidating her hold on a marginally Republican district that’s larger than the state of Pennsylvania. The district sprawls from Flagstaff, over to the Navajo Reservation, down through Gila and Graham counties, then over to the outskirts of Phoenix and on down to Gila Bend. Historically, Rim Country has been a shaggy tail on a big dog, with few visits from its overstretched representative.
Born in McNary, Kirkpatrick represented Flagstaff and the Navajo Reservation in the state legislature, but had only modest connections in Gila County and Rim Country. She has made several jaunts through the area since her election in November and recently struck an agreement with Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin to have a staff person set up twice-monthly office hours in the county offices.
Kirkpatrick has emphasized veterans’ issues in her first six months in office, mingled with high-profile disagreements with House Democratic leadership on things like restrictions on handguns, the budget and the stimulus package.
She voted against President Obama and the House leadership between 73 and 75 percent of the time, the sixth highest rate of disagreement among House Democrats. One other frequent Democratic dissenter is Congressman Harry Mitchell, who represents a nominally Republican district in Tempe.
He disagreed with House leadership 63 percent of the time and with President Obama 81 percent of the time, according to a vote tally published by the Congressional Quarterly.
By contrast, the four Arizona Republican congressmen have supported Obama about 10 percent of the time and followed the lead of Republican House leaders about 98 percent of the time.
An informal survey of people in the crowd on Wednesday found frequent concerns about the proposed reform of the nation’s health care system, an issue on which Kirkpatrick has yet to take a position.
Details remain in flux, but the reform package backed by President Obama would extend coverage to many of the nation’s roughly 40 million uninsured, set up a government-run health plan like Medicare to compete with private plans, require private plans to extend coverage without regard to pre-existing conditions and require plans to improve the system for determining what treatments actually work. Congress is still arguing about how to pay for the plan, with all sorts of ideas still in play — from taxing health benefits to boosting the income tax rate for top-earning taxpayers.
Critics have raised questions about whether the plan does enough to control costs, whether a government-run insurance plan would drive private plans out of business and whether the administration conceded too much ground to the health insurance, prescription drug and hospital lobbies to win their tentative support for the plan.
Most of the people interviewed in the crowd in front of Safeway on Wednesday expressed reservations about the reform plan.
Judy O’Connell said, “it took Obama six months to pick out a puppy, but we have to push health care through in three weeks? I think Kirkpatrick is just playing it safe,” by not taking a public position on healthcare reform.
Edna Armstrong observed, “they’re trying to get the money out of Social Security so they can provide health care to the illegals. What got me out was my husband, who is a tried and true Republican, said I should get out here and see what’s going on. I had no idea there’d be so many people.”
Don Ascoli used his brief time with Kirkpatrick to try to get her to sign a pledge to not support any health care reform unless the President and members of Congress were all required to get their coverage from the government-run health plan.
President Obama has in the past said he wanted any member of the public to have access to the same federal plan that covers members of congress.
However, Ascoli said Kirkpatrick said she couldn’t sign the petition until she’d seen the final details of the health reform plan, still morphing on a daily basis.
Interviewed later, she refused to take any position on the developing reform measures.
“I’m reading the bill, listening to people. I’ve got an open mind,” she said.