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An Unlikely Battleground In The Health Care War

Bingo Day is usually about as exciting as it gets at the Chelmsford Senior Center. But earlier this week, the center became an accidental battleground in the war over national health care reform.

Forty-five seniors showed up for a breakfast with their congresswoman, Niki Tsongas, who is home on recess.

"We're starting a women's breakfast series," says Becky Trepanier, the center's program director, "and when we invited Congresswoman Tsongas, we thought she would be a wonderful person to talk about women in politics and how far they've come."

Rep. Niki Tsongas came home for spring recess to angry opponents of the health care bill and 11 challengers in the midterm election. (AP)
Rep. Niki Tsongas came home for spring recess to angry opponents of the health care bill and 11 challengers in the midterm election. (AP)

Things didn't exactly go as planned.

"We had protesters with signs, upset about the vote, upset about her," Trepanier recalls. "There were not only Republicans and independents, there was this Tea Party group. This turned into a political event — this was not what it was meant to be."

Already 11 Republicans and independent candidates plan to challenge Tsongas in the Fifth District this year. It's a district of working-class towns such as Lawrence and Lowell, with independent voters who overwhelmingly supported Sen. Scott Brown in the special general election.

So Tsongas says she came back from Washington knowing she would be under fire for her vote on health care. "I knew that it was important to get out to a senior center to address some of the concerns that seniors might have," she says.

The seniors were definitely outshouted by the protesters that day, but they weren't outnumbered.

"Throughout the audience were people who had genuine questions," Tsongas says. "Who were actually quite open to the change this represents — both for themselves, but — when you say, you know, if you have a grandchild and they're about to go out into the world, they can stay on their parents' plan, people applaud it."

Marilyn Sicurella is one of those seniors. A retired school teacher who volunteers on Tuesdays at the senior center, Sicurella says she supports Tsongas and she supports the enacted health care bill.

"It may not be perfect, but we certainly need something to change the health care system in this country, without the insurance companies running it," she says. "You know, I'm pleased with some of the specifics of it, such as the donut hole for the elderly."

Dale Brown is pleased with exactly nothing in the bill. One of Tsongas' 11 challengers, he was among the protesters.

Listen: Tsongas On Health Care, Re-electionhttp://audio.wbur.org/storage/2010/04/news_0402_tsongas-sitdown.mp3

"A lot of people ask me: 'Are you related to Scott?' And I say no, no relation," he says, referring to the new senator with whom he shares a surname. "But I do drive a pick-up truck," he adds, laughing.

Brown heard about the protest through an e-mail from the Greater Lowell Tea Party. He maintains, however, that he is not actually a Tea Party member.

"OK, I've been listed as a Tea Party activist," he allows. "I have been to a few of their gatherings. And on the Web, OK, I participate in some of their meet-ups. I think they're doing good work and they're good for the country. Wake people up and see what's going on."

Brown went because he opposes the health care bill, but he also figured he would do a little campaigning. He only has about 500 of the 2,000 signatures he needs to get on the ballot.

So the turnout that morning was something of a letdown for him.

"There was maybe a dozen protesters, folks from the Tea Party," he says. "A lot of people inside I think were normal senior center people that just come for the breakfast. You know, $2 breakfast — that's great."

So the breakfast didn't really turn out the way anyone had expected or hoped. Not the planners, not the seniors, not Niki Tsongas, not the protesters.

Marilyn Sicurella, the volunteer at the senior center, says it's all part of what it means to be an American.

"You know, it's a free country," she says. "I've been out protesting many times, so I don't have a problem with it. It's kind of annoying, but that's what makes this a free country."

And maybe Massachusetts needs to get used to surprises this election year. In a state that just elected its first Republican senator in more than three decades, anything could happen.

For her part, Congresswoman Tsongas says she isn't taking anything for granted.

"I think there's no denying our recent Senate election really did energize the process," she said. "I know I have to earn every vote."

This program aired on April 2, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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