TAMPA — Bitter divisions over reforming America's health care system exploded Thursday night in Tampa amid cat calls, jeering and shoving at a town hall meeting.
"Tyranny! Tyranny! Tyranny!" dozens of people shouted as U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, struggled to talk about health insurance reforms under consideration in Washington, D.C.
"There is more consensus than there is disagreement when you get right down to it,'' Castor offered, immediately drowned out by groans and boos.
She pressed on, mostly unheard among screams from the audience estimated by Tampa police to be about 1,500.
"Tell the truth! Tell the truth!" "Read the bill!" "Forty-million illegals! Forty million illegals!"
The spectacle at the Children's Board in Ybor City sounded more like a wrestling cage match than a panel discussion on national policy, and it was just the latest example of a health care meeting disrupted by livid protesters. Similar scenes are likely to be repeated across the country as lawmakers head to their home districts for the summer recess.
Thursday's forum/near riot was sponsored by state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, and the Service Employees International Union, who apparently had hoped to hold something of a pep rally for President Barack Obama's health care reform proposal.
Instead, hundreds of vocal critics turned out, many of them saying they had been spurred on through the Tampa 912 activist group promoted by conservative radio and television personality Glenn Beck. Others had received e-mails from the Hillsborough Republican Party that urged people to speak out against the plan and offered talking points.
An overflow crowd of critics was left waiting outside the building — and in some cases pounding on the meeting room doors — while health care reform activists complained that Democrats and union members were guided into the room for prime seats. Tampa police officers maintained control the entire night.
"They can't even run a meeting, and they want to run health care?'' scoffed Kevin Grant, a Tampa printing business owner, standing near someone wielding a "Shame on you America. You sold your soul to the Devil" sign.
The nationally televised images of protesters lashing out at politicians sympathetic to Obama's health care proposal certainly drive home the health care plans' keen opposition. Some Democrats, though, argue that engaged, disruptive protesters only serve to depict the GOP as unwilling to work on solutions.
"These groups are not concerned about Americans' access to quality heath care, but are extreme ideologues, only interested in 'breaking' the president and thwarting the change Americans voted for last November," said state Democratic chairwoman Karen Thurman.
Polls show mounting public concern about the nation's debt and deficit, and a CNN poll released this week found 50 percent of those surveyed support the president's plan and 45 percent oppose.
Castor said a strong debate is healthy but suggested that many of the protesters who have shown up at town hall meetings in recent weeks would have staunchly opposed the creation of Medicare and Social Security a few decades ago.
"The insurance industry and … Republican activists are manufacturing a lot of these phony protests,'' said Castor, who has been closely involved in the health care debate and said she won't support any bill lacking a government-run insurance option.
She left before the forum ended, which drew more boos. State Rep. Reed said she encouraged Castor to leave because nobody could hear her anyway.
Protesters said there was nothing phony about their strong showing, just a bubbling of grass roots anger.
"It's the backlash to the arrogance of our government that you're seeing here,'' said Brad Grabill of Temple Terrace.
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.