ST. PETERSBURG — The real work has just begun for the two dozen people crowded into Ed Helm's living room. The man they toiled tirelessly to elect, Barack Obama, prevailed. But now, they're looking for ways to help him push the policies they voted for.
Obama's team has organized more than 4,200 meetings across the country, like the one Monday night, to discuss a longstanding Democratic plank: universal health care.
The last time an effort was mounted on such a large scale it crumbled early in President Bill Clinton's first term, unable to get through Congress.
Critics have said the process then was too secretive and was mishandled.
Obama has long touted his background as a community organizer in Chicago and structured his presidential campaign to rely on grass-roots efforts. However, these neighborhood meetings mark his first attempt at using his community network to assist in governing since becoming president-elect.
"The campaign has assembled a team of organizers from battleground states to work with our volunteers and allies on the next steps for the organization," said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama for America. But he added, "It is an open dialogue — no structural decisions have been made."
"President-elect Obama was clear throughout the campaign that elected officials in Washington alone aren't going to bring change, and whether it's by working to expand the Democratic majority or building grass-roots support for the administration's agenda, the power to bring the change we need lies in the hands of Americans who are engaging their communities."
The group gathered in Helm's home in the Pinellas Point area of St. Petersburg was a diverse conglomerate of the young and old, some with advanced health care problems and others without any problems. A few were physicians and nurses.
"Does everyone here agree that health care is a right, not a privilege, in the United States?" Helm asked. Heads began to nod with murmurs of "yes" and "that's right!" They mused about wide-ranging ideas from prevention-based health care systems to whether health care should be a for-profit or nonprofit industry.
Some of the dialogue illustrated the diverse range of thought on how to proceed. "I think we need to take drastic steps in order to make real change, or this whole thing is going to collapse like before," said 67-year-old Elizabeth Valentine, a clinical psychologist.
"We need to move immediately toward a not-for-profit health care system," she said.
Barbara McCall, 72, who is retired, said she thought it was important but not the first step to be taken. "We have to convince Congress first that we want universal health care. To start with nonprofit I feel is too big a step and won't go through," she said.
"But hold up," chimed in Cliff Burney, 71, a retired social worker in St. Petersburg. "Obama is a pragmatist. I think he's going to craft something that's going to push and pull to get it done. Perfect is the enemy of the good," he said.
After the discussion, attendees answered a survey asking them to prioritize the way national health care reform policy should take shape. They also watched the Michael Moore film Sicko.
Helm, 63, a retired civil rights lawyer and Democratic Party activist, said that hundreds of similar meetings would have to be held to really craft health care reform and invigorate the electorate to get behind it.
"We'll have to bring in some Republicans, too," he said. The idea was something that J.J. Beyrouti, chairman of the Pinellas County Republican Party, seemed to embrace.
"Our health system definitely needs to be looked at," said Beyrouti, the former mayor of Redington Shores. "It's definitely a good start. We're always open to discussion and to debate. . . . We need to bring in professionals and that grass-roots approach from the public to see what will service our needs."
Access to health insurance is also a local problem. A 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report, the most recent, estimated that more than 135,000 Pinellas County residents under 65 were uninsured.
In October, the county Health Department began a Saturday primary care clinic for uninsured residents at its Pinellas Park center.
"It's been getting a good turnout as word has been getting out," said Jeannine Mallory, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department.
Austin Bogues can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8872.