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With virtual town halls, Maryland legislators sidestep potential mob scenes

- The last time Congress took a break, Rep. John P. Sarbanes held a series of town hall gatherings at local libraries and a volunteer firehouse with his Baltimore-area constituents. This week, he conducted conference calls instead.

Sarbanes said the "virtual" meetings allow him to reach thousands as he spends his August recess trying to convince constituents of the merits of Democratic health care ideas, compared with a few hundred who might show up at a school or community center. But the electronic sessions provide other advantages, too.

They can't be disrupted by opponents, and there's no chance that embarrassing video of a loud-mouthed critic will show up on the TV news or YouTube.

Ever since congressional Democrats began promoting their health care overhaul plan to folks back home this month, highly publicized confrontations between lawmakers and angry constituents have threatened to drown out their reform message. The showdowns have attracted considerable media exposure, and elected officials are scrambling to adjust.

Freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., whose district includes the Eastern Shore, drew national attention after a man showed up outside his Salisbury headquarters carrying an effigy of the congressman with a noose around the neck. Kratovil, a vulnerable Democrat, removed his public schedule from his official Web site after getting jeered by critics at several stops.

The outbursts aren't limited to health care. In upstate New York, where he was campaigning Tuesday on behalf of a local Democrat, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland was loudly accused of "lying" by an anti-tax protester; footage of the confrontation made the network news that night.

"I want to hear different views," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "What upsets me is when people are intentionally trying to shout down other people."

The Baltimore congressman said he is concerned that media coverage of the outbursts may only intensify public skepticism about the president's health care plan, which has already lost support in national opinion polls. And that's exactly what the opponents want, said other Democrats, who have accused the insurance industry and conservative activists of helping to orchestrate the protests.

One leading advocate of overhauling health care said he hopes that all the noise doesn't prevent those "with honest questions" from being heard.

"August is really the most consequential period available for people to talk to their members of Congress," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "I think this is an opportunity to close the deal so that health reform happens."

In 1993, the last time Washington made a serious stab at overhauling the health care system, opponents unleashed a highly successful TV ad campaign, featuring a couple named Harry and Louise, which helped doom President Bill Clinton's plan.

Today, the same online networking tools that helped Barack Obama gain the presidency are being mobilized to fight his top legislative priority.

When Ellen Sauerbrey heard that Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin was holding a town hall meeting at Towson University on Monday evening, she passed the information to her e-mail list, along with instructions to take signs and flags to "demonstrate opposition to government takeover of our health insurance." Recipients included members of the Maryland Freedom Coalition, a nascent umbrella group of conservative activists that Sauerbrey and others are organizing.

The former Bush administration appointee and two-time Republican nominee for governor said White House claims that opponents are "manufacturing" outrage over the Obama plan is "a totally phony argument."

"What is manufactured?" Sauerbrey asked. "Does that mean if a citizen like me sends an e-mail to the 50 people that I correspond with regularly, is that manufacturing?"

Democratic officials spent weeks preparing for a health care offensive during Congress' summer recess. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who heads the party's House campaign committee, worked with colleagues to shape the message they would take home.

But the level of anger that surfaced this week caught some lawmakers off-guard. Party strategists were surprised by the level of media attention that the disruptions attracted.

By pushing back with charges that Republicans have encouraged a campaign of intimidation at the grass-roots level, Democrats hope to frame recent events more as partisan warfare rather than as a debate over the merits of Obama's overhaul agenda.

"Even those people who disagree with the health care plans, they want to be able, in a civil way, to voice their concerns and get a response from their members of Congress," said Doug Thornell, a House leadership aide.

Telephone town halls - such as those Sarbanes is coordinating - were among the tools that party strategists recommended to Democratic congressmen and senators for delivering the health care pitch.

The conference calls allow a lawmaker to reach thousands of individually identified constituents at once, far more than would attend a typical public meeting. But it's more expensive than borrowing a room at a public school. A single session can cost upward of $6,000 to $7,000, paid with taxpayer funds out of a lawmaker's office account.

Telephonic town halls give a member of Congress almost complete control: Questions are screened in advance and the moderator, usually a staff member, can cut off anyone who gets unruly.

But that control comes also at a political cost: the loss of face-to-face contact with constituents and the possibility of gaining broader media coverage, particularly on television, of the local congressman staying in touch with the folks who sent him to Washington.

Health care town halls
Democratic senators and representatives are holding more than 1,300 events during the congressional recess from now through Labor Day. Here are health care town halls currently scheduled by lawmakers from Maryland:

•Monday, 7 p.m.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin

Towson University Center for the Arts; Harold J. Kaplan Concert Hall; corner of Cross Campus and Osler drives

•Wednesday, 1 p.m.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin

Hagerstown Community College; Kepler Theater; 11400 Robinwood Dr.

•Aug. 24, 1 p.m. (time is tentative)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings

Chase House; 1027 Cathedral St., Baltimore.