Desperately seeking Senator Pat Toomey

Is there anybody out there?

“I exist because of Planned Parenthood,” a visibly emotional Vashti Bandy said to a crowd of about 50 people gathered on Chestnut Street outside Senator Toomey’s office to oppose the American Health Care Act (AHCA).

#ReadAHCA's die-in. Vashti Bandy in pink pants, far right. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso)

An organizer of the #ReadAHCA protest, she said she hadn’t planned to tell such a personal story. But if nature abhors a vacuum, maybe a politician’s absence has a potent effect on the voices of his constituents, who transform silence into a megaphone.

Bandy and the assembled protestors opposed House Republicans’ latest attempt to strip Medicaid reimbursements from Planned Parenthood, and Bandy’s story is one she especially hopes Republicans in Congress will hear before they rob millions of access to basic healthcare services.

What choice looks like

“I was an accident,” she said. When her mother became pregnant, her father opposed his partner’s choice to become a parent; when threats failed, he delivered her to a Planned Parenthood clinic and tried to coerce her into having an abortion.

A counselor there managed to separate Bandy’s mother from her angry partner and asked what she really wanted.

“The woman said, ‘Go home. We will not perform an abortion without your consent,’” Bandy shared. The safety of a woman to choose to go home and continue her pregnancy with proper care is what Republicans in Congress, by starving Planned Parenthood, would take away from their constituents. Another choice Bandy is also personally grateful for: access to contraceptives that mean she is never forced to make the decision her mother did.

“The most frightening time of my life”

In the prolonged Philadelphia disappearance of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, citizen-mounted political forums like the June 4, 2017, #ReadAHCA event, as well as a June 1, 2017, Rittenhouse town hall “with or without Senator Toomey,” are getting dramatic.

If you see this man, please tell him Philadelphia would like to speak to him. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons/Flickr.)
If you see this man, please tell him Philadelphia would like to speak to him. (Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons/Flickr.)

#ReadAHCA, organized by Tuesdays With Toomey members Bandy, Jillian Bosmann, and Alyssa Posoff (a former coworker of mine), declared that since some House Republicans who voted for the AHCA hadn’t actually read the bill, citizens of Philly would do it for them, outside Toomey’s new office at Second and Chestnut Streets. The group enlisted local actors to read portions of the bill, and paired this with explanations and personal stories from activists, medical professionals, and ordinary folks with a story to tell about how the Affordable Care Act or its Medicaid expansion have been vital to their families.

Philadelphia actor Carol Anne Raffa read part of the bill and stayed through the three-hour event to listen to every other speaker.

Afterward, she told me she participated because, in the past, her family had lost medical coverage due to her husband’s layoff. During one uninsured spate she was pregnant, and during the second she had two young children. It was “the most frightening time of my life,” she said.  As a working actor, she had no medical benefits; her family relied on state health coverage while she was their sole provider.

With or without you

The Town Hall Meeting with or without Senator Pat Toomey, which packed the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square with roughly 500 people, was organized by various local chapters of Indivisible Philly, Moving Philly Forward, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and other groups. For 90 minutes, an army of passionate speakers took quick turns at the mic to ask a plastic mannequin in a suit, with a giant question mark for a head, questions about environmental policy, immigration, governmental ethics, and healthcare. One attendee asked whether Senator Toomey could explain why her prematurely born nephew, who survived because of his mother’s inclusion in the Medicaid expansion, deserves to die.

At the Town Hall Meeting with or without Pat Toomey, the show must go on. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)
At the Town Hall Meeting with or without Pat Toomey, the show must go on. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso.)

Toomey, who lunched at the Union League that very afternoon but declined to attend the town hall or send any staffers, did not answer.

This doesn’t deter Posoff, who has worked as a stage and production manager. At the town hall, she told me she finds organizing resistance actions much more engaging and satisfying than any theater job she’s had.

Who’s listening?

But when Toomey and his colleagues won’t listen to their constituents, who are organizers like Posoff really talking to?

In an increasingly dysfunctional and threatening state and federal political climate, Philadelphia resisters are responding with increasingly elaborate political theater, including a sidewalk die-in after #ReadAHCA, holding up cardboard tombstones as a saxophonist played “Taps.”

Bandy tried and tried to get through to Toomey. She recounted calling the senator’s office to share her own family story about Planned Parenthood. A staffer there told her she could just go to other clinics.

"What clinics?" Bandy asked.

"I don’t know," the staffer said, “But you have to admit they exist.”

In light of Toomey’s resounding silence, the usual political rituals (phone-call campaigns and town halls) have mushroomed into something else. These organizers aren’t really speaking to Toomey and his ilk anymore, even if they are stationed outside his office. Instead, they’re speaking into the most powerful mirror and microphone they can find: the public.

Plenty of us need the information. Among speeches on essential health benefits and funding for childhood vaccines at the June 4 event, one heckler in Old City screamed, “Pay your taxes, bitches!”

After #ReadAHCA, Posoff was blunt. “He doesn’t give a shit,” she said of Senator Toomey. Events like this — and more are planned for the near future — are “more for everyone else who isn’t informed.” 

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