A conservative advocacy group targeting Republican state legislators it deems too liberal braved out a hostile reception in Kalispell Thursday night when the group took aim at local state Rep. Frank Garner, who has refused to sign a blanket pledge opposing Medicaid expansion in Montana.
The group, Americans for Prosperity-Montana, has been holding “Healthcare Town Hall” meetings across the state, singling out districts in which Republican lawmakers have declined to support AFP’s pledges of opposition to Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.
So far, the group has targeted Garner, who represents House District 7, as well as Reps. Jeff Welborn, of Dillon, and Tom Berry, of Roundup, sending out a flurry of mailers to districts portraying the respective lawmaker’s face superimposed over a photograph of President Barack Obama.
A crowd of about 100 people attended the event at the Red Lion Inn in Kalispell. Some of them received word about the gathering through the postcard mailers, which read, “Tell Frank Garner to stand with us and vote no on ObamaCare’s expansion in Montana.”
Garner, who made the eight-hour round trip from Helena to attend the meeting, took umbrage with the postcards and said the group never told him about the meeting, which he learned about from a reporter on the House floor at the Capitol.
“I support their right to have an opinion. I just didn’t like how they did it,” Garner said. “They didn’t even extend the courtesy of telling me about the meeting. What does that say about their intentions?”
The former Kalispell police chief said he understands his constituents better than an out-of-state group like AFP because he ran a campaign based on listening to and understanding the wants and needs of his district, and he’s made good on that promise in Helena.
Garner’s mere presence had a chilling effect on the AFP presentation, which was frequently derailed by laughter, booing and shouting from audience members who overwhelmingly expressed support for Garner.
Following a hasty exchange with AFP State Director Zach Lahn minutes before Thursday’s meeting commenced, Garner took the podium to defend his record before the crowd of mostly supporters, who cheered the lawmaker on.
“I promised the people here when I ran that I would listen to you and not out-of-town special interests,” Garner said to raucous applause. “If every time they want me to sign a pledge card and I don’t do it they are going to rent a room and have a meeting, then this is going to get real expensive. Cause I’m not signing the pledge card.”
Medicaid expansion is poised to be one of the most significant issues before the 2015 Montana Legislature as Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has proposed accepting federal money to expand coverage to 70,000 low-income residents.
The governor’s measure has received opposition from members of the majority Republican leadership, who say it’s an unnecessary welfare program that will saddle the state with millions of dollars of debt.
But a faction of Republican lawmakers, including Garner, have refrained from taking a hardline against Medicaid expansion, saying they’re open to considering some form of expansion, opening the possibility for a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to approve it.
Garner said he sees problems with full Medicaid expansion, but that won’t stop him from considering other alternatives, such as helping low-income people who can’t afford a federal subsidy to purchase health insurance. Moreover, he wants to examine the plans at the Legislature before making a decision.
“Sure, I have problems with full expansion, but you can’t know what a bill looks like and does until it’s in front of you,” he said. “I won’t sign a pledge card for or against any issue. My vote is my pledge card. And it’s permanent.”
AFP-Montana is a branch of the conservative organization founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, who own Koch Industries, of Wichita, Kansas, a prominent opponent of Medicaid expansion.
Last summer, the group ramped up its presence in Montana, expanding from two to 11 paid staffers, according to the group.
Lahn, the AFP-Montana director, said the group has been focusing its resources on legislators who did not answer a survey that the group distributed asking lawmakers about their stances on major issues. The group has circled back and asked those dozen-or-so lawmakers to sign pledge cards opposing Medicaid expansion.
Those who don’t sign have been targeted in their districts by telephone calls, mailers and local events, including the recent series of “Health Care Town Hall” meetings, which feature speakers from groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability who inform locals about why Medicaid expansion is “bad policy,” encouraging them to tell their legislators to oppose it.
Lahn insisted the meetings were not an attack on specific legislators, but “a crusade against bad policy.”
“This is not a dig at Frank Garner. This is not and will not be a crusade against any legislator,” Lahn said. “This is a crusade against bad policy.”
Lahn said the group used an image of Obama on the postcards and flyers because the Affordable Care Act is the president’s signature health care policy; its purpose was to let lawmakers know that their constituents oppose Obamacare, he said.
That comment prompted Garner to question why, if AFP’s intent is to communicate a message to lawmakers, was he the only legislator in attendance.
“If the purpose is to make sure legislators know, then why am I the only one here? And why didn’t I get an invite?” Garner asked to more applause.
Any sense of order the meeting maintained at the beginning broke down toward its end, with audience members shouting questions and accusations, interrupting Lahn and defending Garner.
“You have pissed me off,” one man told Lahn. “Character assassination does not go down well in Montana. If he has to take a pledge then I want it to be the Pledge of Allegiance, because they don’t represent you, they represent me.”
Referencing a quote by Henry David Thoreau on the sanctity of town hall meetings, Nathan Kosted told Lahn the gathering smacked of exclusivity.
“Why did you call this a town hall meeting? I didn’t get an invite. I wish I’d been invited, because I want to know how we get the Koch Brothers out of politics. I want to know how we get you out of politics,” Kosted said.
Before concluding the meeting, Lahn said the “message has been received” on the group’s tactics targeting specific lawmakers.