Nullifying Health Care and Free Speech

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Several hundred of Texas’ anti-government “patriots” —including birthers, deathers, Tenthers, libertarians, tea-partiers and backers of GOP gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina—gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday afternoon to call on the state to nullify (i.e., reject as a matter of states’ rights) federal health-care reform. It’s safe to say that almost everyone went home even angrier than when they arrived—especially after a rally supposedly dedicated to reasserting originalist Constitutional principles ended with dissenters’ voices being squelched by its organizers.

Unlike the unfocused tea parties—where no agenda except anti-Obama and anti-government animus could be detected —this one had a specific purpose: calling on Gov. Rick Perry, who steered clear of the two-hour event, to schedule a special session of the Texas Legislature to vote on state nullification of the impending federal health-care bill.

Keynote speaker John Stacy of Dallas, organizer of the group Not in Texas, explained: “Nullification is a very big word with a very, very simple philosophy: The Texas government can reassert a Constitutional right given to them under the 10th Amendment. They can remind the federal government that it was the states that formed the federal government: We were here first!” (Of course, Texas didn’t become a state until 1845, and nullification is anything but “simple” or clearly Consitutional, but the devil’s in the details.)

While nullifying health-care reform was the ostensible purpose of the rally, most of the speakers’ rhetoric—and the signs and shouts of the crowd—sounded the same themes that have animated the tea party movement all along: Government is “evil,” Obama is leading a “socialist regime” akin to those run by Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, and “states’ rights” must be reasserted by Texans.

The rhetoric was often incendiary—never more so than when state Rep. Leo Berman, a Republican from Tyler, took the podium and denounced Obama as a “fraud” and a “socialist.”

“The election of Barack Obama to be president of the United States saw the election of a fraud to that office,” Berman began. “Why else would an individual spend millions of dollars to block the release of his official birth certificate from the public’s view? Why would he spend millions to block the release of his college records and passport documents from official review?

“If you bring this subject up as I am today, you will be called a right-wing nut or a racist or any other names the socialists in Washington can bestow on you.”

Berman went on, to boisterous cheers from the crowd: “Mr. Obama is pushing a socialist legislative agenda. From ObamaCare to cap-and-tax and anti-gun legislation, his agenda is meant primarily for two reasons. One is to provide him with total control over our people.” An audience member bellowed, “Never!” Berman continued: “Never! That’s right. The other is to ensure total redistribution of our wealth.”

“Kill Obama!” yelled a lanky young man from Waco wearing a Medina sticker.

After claiming that the health-care bill would require Texans to spend $20 billion over the next 10 years on “Medicaid for illegal aliens,” Berman quoted from the Declaration of Independence and concluded thusly:

“Washington now appears to be dominated by socialists. Socialists do not believe in God. Their God is the state.”

Another state legislator, the more moderate Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth, was booed and hooted and abandoned the podium after very brief remarks. The final speaker of the afternoon, Republican state Rep. Wayne Christian, was greeted with mocking howls for mentioning 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain in a positive light. While he spoke, a protester near the podium held up a sign reading, “He Works for the Man.” But Christian did get cheers for this bit of podium humor:

“It upsets me when they say we’re not at war, there’s not terror, and why are we saying there’s Muslim terrorists who are attacking our country? Well, the other night I heard somebody say, the reason we have to say Muslim terrorists is because I’ve never heard of a Southern Baptist death squad.”

After Christian’s peroration, all hell broke loose, bringing the two-hour event to a self-imploding close. A scrum erupted when Medina supporters clashed angrily with the event’s organizers—a coalition of groups led by New Revolution Now –who had not allowed the candidate to speak.

Medina’s protest candidacy gathered momentum last Thursday with an impressive performance in a debate with GOP front-runners Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. A libertarian in the Ron Paul style who supports a special session to debate a nullification resolution, Medina attended the rally but was not scheduled to speak — because, organizers told the Observer, they wanted it to be about nullifying the health-care bill, not about electoral politics.

One speaker endorsed Medina from the podium and called for her to come up and speak, declaring, “We want to hear Debra talk about nullification!” Cheers were loud and sustained. Some were incensed that three Republican legislators (who are, after all, standing for re-election) were permitted to speak—including Wentworth, who was not a scheduled speaker. Nevertheless, Medina was kept off the podium even though she has become the state’s best-known spokesperson for the loose coalition of tea-party, libertarian and nullification movements.

According to Heather Fazio of Austin, a vocal Medina backer, word had spread that organizers “said that if we made enough noise they were going to let her speak. So we tried to make noise, and they wouldn’t follow through.”

Dozens of Medina supporters closed in on the organizers around the podium, venting their frustrations and using bullhorns to broadcast their message after the rally was declared over. The candidate herself was, by this time, nowhere in sight.

In the chaos around the podium, a woman with a Perry sticker nearly came to blows with a Medina supporter who screamed, “This is bullshit! United we stand and divided we fall, and this is why Texas is falling,” and told her foe, “Rick Perry has had his 10 years and what the hell has he done?” They went back and forth until the Medina woman finally said, “We’re gonna get health care anyway”—meaning defeat it, one assumes—and stalked off as the Perry supporter called out after her, “You look like you need some!”

A couple of hundred protesters lingered, some confused about the commotion but glued to the fracas, as state troopers stepped in to calm the Medina backers and advise them to hold their own rally, if they wanted, elsewhere on the Capitol grounds.

At this point, the rally’s organizers sent country-music songs booming through the loudspeakers to drown out the bullhorn shouters.

“That’s a typical tactic,” one angry man yelled. A woman yelled into a bullhorn about “tyranny.”

“If Jeff Wentworth can be coming up the highway and hear about it and then come here and be invited up to speak, why can’t she?” said Jim Stutsman a libertarian Republican candidate for Congress in the 25th district (the seat now held by Democrat Lloyd Doggett). “They put Jeff Wentworth up here. He’s a real-estate whore and advocates toll roads. So get out of here with him.

“This is supposed to be non-partisan about Texas and nullification today, and then all of a sudden it got turned into … Republican hacks making their statements and everything. That’s why I’m not here campaigning, but I support this issue and I support the Constitution. I’m tired of elected officials making like it’s a living document; it’s not. It’s in stone!”

Around us, Medina supporters continued to holler through bullhorns and yell at departing organizers over the country music.

“We have freedom of speech; it’s a Constitutional right!” Fazio declared as the music cut off momentarily. Then it started back up, and got turned up louder until even bullhorns couldn’t be heard over it.

After about 10 minutes of loud chaos, the crowd began to disperse, some headed to a post-rally gathering at a bar down Congress Street. I caught up with Lisa Mallory, a genial Leander school-board trustee who backs Medina, as she walked away.

“I think they should have given her the courtesy” of speaking. “You had another unannounced speaker come in,” Mallory said, referring to Wentworth. “Obviously it was mostly [Medina's] crowd. The fact that she didn’t speak doesn’t offend me as much as the fact that when the speakers stopped they began to play music so that her supporters couldn’t be heard. That’s just squelching the voice and what it does it is makes us take to the streets.

“There’s nothing like trying to put a piece of duct tape on somebody’s mouth to make them that much more vocal. So I think they just really riled up her supporters today. They riled me up!”