By Cliff Barney
Special to Calbuzz
Five of us rolled up I-280 in a little PT Cruiser, en route to lobby Sen. Dianne Feinstein on behalf of a public option in the new health care bill.
A few days earlier, Feinstein had said on CNN she was dubious about Obama’s health plan – which includes a public option, a kind of Medicare for anyone – because it looked too expensive and the president didn’t seem to have the votes for it. Loyal Democratic activists, we were upset at the senator’s remarks, and wanted some indication that Democrats – all of them – are willing to fight for a meaningful health care bill.
The notion of taking our complaints to Feinstein, whom we know carries a lot of weight among centrist Democrats, was Harvey Dosik’s idea: “Call her up,” Harvey suggested. “Let’s go visit her next time she’s in town.”
Dosik is a Santa Cruz businessman with a knack for political fund-raising; last year he bundled, almost dollar by dollar, $35,000 from local sources, sending it to Obama and to three Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in close races (all of whom won). For our lobbying venture, he also recruited Chris Finnie, live-wire member of the California Democratic Central Committee and recent candidate for party chair; with our wives, Morgan English and Carolyn McCall, we set to schedule a meeting with the senator.
We didn’t get one, of course, since however loyal and active, we remain five bozos from the Santa Cruz mountains and beaches. But we did connect with Feinstein’s San Francisco office and arranged an interview with her staff.
So one recent morning, we sat in an elegant conference room on the twenty-fourth floor of One Post Street talking with Christine Epres, a local representative who described herself as part of “the eyes and ears of the Senator,” and said she was ready to listen.
To our astonishment, she told us were the first citizen group that had visited the office to talk about the health bill.
We began to make our case. Chris Finnie fired an opening salvo by sliding across the table a stack of 156 sheets bearing the names of more than 42,000 Feinstein constituents who supported a public option in the health plan. They had been collected by Democracy for America, the organization founded by Howard Dean to promote his 50-state strategy for grassroots democracy.
I cited Wall Street Journal/NBC and New York Times/CBS polls that showed more than 70 percent of citizens supporting a public option in the health bill. Harvey zeroed in on the cost of profit to health care purchasers – it is “overhead between me and my doctor,” he said. Morgan urged Estes to relay the strong message that private insurance was not doing the job. Carolyn called Feinstein’s vote for or against the public option as important as her vote to support the Iraq war, a vote Feinstein has since said she regrets. The implication was that we hoped the senator didn’t blow it this time, too.
Estes acknowledged that the senator had not yet announced a position on the Obama health plan. In fact, her only public statement on the public option (or what seems to be a public option, though it’s hard to tell from the text) had been a masterpiece of balance; she supported, she said “moving toward either a non-profit model of medical insurance or to one where premium costs can be controlled, either through competition in a public or cooperative model or through a regulated authority.”
“We want her to take a position,” Harvey told Estes, adding that we feared the Senate would water down the public option into locally based insurance cooperatives that would not be able to bargain powerfully because they would be too small.
The meeting lasted at least an hour; Estes took notes and was responsive to our point of view. In the end, we asked her what we could do that had the best chance of reaching the Senator’s ear.
“You know,” she said, “the best thing would be to send us stories about the difficulties people have with private insurance.”
Sometimes we don’t hear what is said to us the first time, or even the first few times. Earlier, we’d been dismayed when the Obamista at Organization for America, the president’s national grassroots operation, had advised rounding up individual tales of woe about the inefficiencies and even cruelties of private insurance, the better to win the hearts of Republicans and sway doubtful Democrats. It didn’t seem like a great strategy, although for weeks the group had been posting examples at http://stories.barackobama.com/healthcare.
Now we were getting the same advice from a completely different quarter. Perhaps it’s time to listen. Sen. Feinstein is famously fond of real-life anecdotes that illustrate a political position. So we, the first citizen group in the Bay Area to lobby her on public option, suggest we give her what she asks for.
Carolyn had a scary story of her own, and immediately sent it, along with nearly a thousand other stories from the same zip code in OFA’s database, to:
Office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein
One Post Street
San Francisco CA 94104
Perhaps these and others can express people’s needs in a way that resonates in Congress.