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Obama brings health care crusade to the Twin Cities

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Barack Obama
President Barack Obama holds health insurance reform rally, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2009, in Minneapolis.
AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari

In a speech at times reminiscent of his recent address to Congress, President Obama urged a Minneapolis crowd Saturday to "get fired up" in the battle for health care reform.

In a 40-minute speech, Obama offered an overview of his proposals with a mix of cautionary tales of health insurance gone wrong and governtment statistics meant to underscore the urgency passing reform.

Obama also noted the "good things that are happening in Minnesota," saying he wanted to learn from successes at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. 

"Half of people under 65 will lose health insurance coverage at some point in the next 10 years," Obama said. "Nobody should be treated this way in the United States of America."

The event took on the feeling of a presidential campaign rally, with the large, supportive crowd chanting "Yes we can!" many times throughout the speech.

The president brought a lot of levity to the speech, telling an extended version of the  story of a "fired up" woman he met at a campaign stop in Greenwood, S.C.

The anecdote led to a rallying cry at the end of the speech, as Obama urged supporters to "fire it up" and spread their enthusiasm through the community.

Lawyer James McGovern
Lawyer James McGovern argues about patriotism with protesters outside the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., where President Obama held a Health Insurance Reform Rally on Saturday, September 12, 2009. (Photographer: Chris Kelleher)
MPR Photo/Chris Kelleher

The president also began his speech by acknowledging the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers' home football opener against Air Force in the new TCF Bank Stadium today, although, he quipped, he would reserve any comments as he would be flying back to Washington on "one of their planes."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar told MPR News that she talked with the president for 20 minutes on the flight from Washington about the Mayo Clinic and how practices there could be a model for nation. 

Supporters cheer speech, few protests inside

Obama's speech had the intended effect on many of the people in attendance as they left the Target Center "fired up."

Outside the arena, Ida Simon, 28, of Worthington, stopped to snap pictures of the anti-reform protesters.

Nick Shillingford
Nick Shillingford of St. Louis Park shouts to the crowd outside the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., where President Obama held a Health Insurance Reform Rally on Saturday, September 12, 2009.
MPR Photo/Chris Kelleher

She said she was going to post the photos on Facebook.

"I just want to show what kind of fools they are and make fun of then," she said. "They really have to wake up and join us in the 21st century."

Rodney Davis, 43, of Apple Valley, said he loved the speech and that he had heard what he wanted to hear. He paused on the sidewalk to listen to the anti-reform protesters. 

"I know what [Obama] is doing. I just don't know what they're doing," he said, referring to the protesters.

While many people opposed to health care reforms stayed outside the Target Center, Jill Carlson, 60, a retired schoolteacher from Bloomington, said she attended the speech because she wanted to hear if Obama was going to say something new.

In the skyway
Long lines filled two skyways outside the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., before President Obama's Health Insurance Reform Rally on Saturday, September 12, 2009.
MPR Photo / Chris Kelleher

"I didn't hear anything new, just broad generalities," she said. "In reality, this was a rally for Democrats."

Carlson opposes health care reform but said she attended the speech because she wanted to make a point to listen to the president as opposed to Democrats in Congress who, she said, are not listening to Republicans. 

Massive crowds, peaceful protests

Several hours before the start of the president's speech, a line stretched for several city blocks.

People started waiting in line at 8 p.m. Friday. Deneen Harris of Hopkins, Minn., said she was the first person in line. 

Target Center crowd
Rows of people wait outside the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., before President Obama's Health Insurance Reform Rally on Saturday, September 12, 2009.
MPR Photo / Chris Kelleher

"I asked when the line started and they said 12 or so, so we just came back and set up here," Harris said.

Standing beside Harris, Judy Williams said they knew the lines would be massive.

"We're here to make sure that not everybody is one car accident away from being in debt or losing their home," Williams said.

The Target Center, which holds 18,000 people in the configuration used for the speech, was filled to near capacity.

DFL Party chairman Brian Melendez told MPR News the party emailed 55,000 people and called another 10,000 to encourage them to attend the event.

A small group of protesters assembled across from the Target Center, some holding signs that say "Change? I'd like mine back."

Several of the protesters said they were concerned that a public health insurance option would drive up an already large federal deficit.

A protester holds up a sign
A woman holds up a protest sign outside of the Target Center during the day of President Obama's visit on Saturday, September 12, 2009.
MPR Photo/Caroline Yang

Bill Sandberg, 63, of Wayzata, Minn., said Obama's proposed reforms would bankrupt his Minneapolis prosthetic limb company, SPT Technology.

A public health plan would undercut private companies like his, leading to low quality products, he said.

"It'll be like they're from a third-world country," Sandberg said.

One of his company's managers, Mary Van Horne, 63, put it more bluntly. 

"It'll throw us back to the stone ages," she said.

Differences of opinion

Most of the anti- and pro-reform groups passed each other without acknowledgment. David Sundeen, 57, of Minnetonka, and Paul Hyland, 65, of St. Paul, were an exception. 

Sundeen carried a sign saying "Make Medicare a choice," while Hyland's sign read "Government run health care makes me sick."

"Don't you want to help your neighbors?" Sundeen asked Hyland.

"The short answer is yes. The difference is how we do that," Hyland said.

"So what are you doing to help that forward?"

"I expect you to take care of your neighbors and I'll take care of mine. I don't believe you want me to pay for your doctors."

"If it really makes you scared to help other people, there are places where you can go where you don't have to do that," Sundeen said. "You can go there."

"I have just as much right to be here as you. And I don't feel obligated to help other people," Hyland said. "You're suggesting you're more charitable than I am. I've got a different kind of charity than you do."

Sundeen owns his own company and doesn't have health care. He said he talks to people on the other side of the debate because he said he hopes he can still change their minds.

Hyland was laid off from his IT job in 2003 and has private insurance. He said he still thinks the two sides can learn from one another. 

University of Minnesota internist Nate Bahr, 26, wore his white doctor's coat while standing in line. Bahr, who is the state director of Doctors for America, said about 30 physicians from the organization are at the event. Bahr said he encouraged them to wear their lab coats.

"[People] like doctors who care about their health," he said. "By being here, we're all showing that."

Unions join the cause

Dozens of Teamsters Local 120 members are distributing doughnuts and coffee from a truck. Political director Rhys Ledger said rising health care costs are eating into union workers' wages.

"We end up making less so we can have health care," he said. "So we need to be here to show our support."

While the Teamsters made their pitch with coffee, 24-year-old United Auto Workers union member Brett Hoven took a more graphic approach. Hoven wore a ripped white t-shirt painted to look bloody. He colored his face to look bruised and his nose dripped with fake blood.

"I'm literally dying for health care," he joked.

Hoven has been laid off from his job at the St. Paul Ford plant. He's a member of the Socialist Alternative. He says people are trying to use the word "socialism" to give the Obama plan a bad name.

"They say 'socialists' like it's pejorative," he said. "But the fire department is socialized, education in this country is socialized."

Seventy members of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota stood in and around the entrance to the Target Center. Vice President Connie Lewis said she wants people to see their pink shirts and remember that women's care has to be well-represented in any public plan.

She said the group supports Obama even though he recently made a point of saying his plan would not provide taxpayer money for abortions. Lewis said abortion is a separate issue.

"Those talking about government-funded abortions, their agenda is to derail health care reform," she said. 

The speech was Obama's first visit to Minnesota as president. Minnesota Republicans derided the Obama stop as a "Hail Mary" pass. 

The president's Minnesota appearance comes three days after his Congressional address on health care. The televised speech drew about 32 million viewers, and sparked debate about the details of proposed legislation.

(This report was written by Than Tibbetts and Madeline Baran. Rupa Shenoy and Tom Scheck reported from Minneapolis.)