COLUMBIA, SC — Protesters for and against the federal Affordable Care Act said Tuesday they had the same ally: God.
Speakers at competing rallies — the “Choose Freedom, Stop Obamacare” rally on the State House’s north side and the “Enough is Enough” rally on the south side — declared God was on their side in the battle over whether to expand health insurance for the poor or make it harder for government-run insurance programs to operate in South Carolina.
“Forgive us for electing leaders, not for their righteousness but their promise to give us benefits,” prayed Mike Gonzalez, pastor of Columbia World Outreach, an interdenominational church. “Forgive our elected leaders for removing our freedoms by binding us with legislation that forces the people and obligates them to participate in something against their will, such as Obamacare.”
On the other side of the State House, the Rev. James Blassingame, president of the Baptist Educational & Missionary Convention, prayed the state’s lawmakers would “do what is morally right,” asking God that legislators “receive the clear message that the citizens of South Carolina demand that they expand Medicaid, further fund public education and protect voting rights for all in South Carolina.”
The rallies highlighted the tensions present as state lawmakers returned to Columbia for the first day of the 2014 legislative session.
Last year, after much debate, the Republican-controlled Legislature rejected billions of dollars in federal money that would have expanded the state’s health insurance program for the poor, arguing that expansion would cost the state close to $1 billion in the long term.
This year, Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would make it more difficult for people to sign up for federally subsidized health insurance policies. That bill, H.3101, is before the state Senate.
Addressing the anti-Obamacare protesters, state Rep. Bill Chumley, R-Spartanburg, praised H.3101 as a “nullification” bill, saying it would render Obamacare “null and void” in South Carolina. But state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, the author of an amendment the Senate will debate in the coming weeks, said South Carolina cannot nullify federal law that has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
On the south side of the State House, Anitra Johnson, a military veteran from Goose Creek, told the crowd she was rejected on the federal marketplace because she did not qualify as impoverished, under federal guidelines. She said she would have been eligible had the state Legislature agreed to expand Medicaid.
“This is the new face of poverty,” she told the crowd. “Take a good look. I don’t live in a Third World country. I’m right here.”
Protesters on the other side of the State House compared government-run health care to communism. Dick LoBue, a retired military veteran who lives in Myrtle Beach, brought at least 12 signs with him to the “Choose Freedom” rally, including one he had made professionally that depicted Paul Revere shooting stars out of his index finger at the hammer-and-sickle symbol of communism.
“(President Barack Obama) is taking money away from us and giving it to programs that don’t work,” he said.
At the pro-Affordable Health Care rally, protesters stood in silence as a white coffin was laid on the State House’s steps, representing the more than 1,400 people that the pro-Obamacare demonstrators say will die this year because lawmakers did not expand Medicaid — numbers disputed by Tony Keck, director of the state’s Medicaid program.
Anne Owens, from Charleston, said she saw firsthand the difference health insurance makes in lives when she volunteered to help people sign up for health plans on the federal marketplace.
“People were in tears,” she said, as she held up paper wings signed by the 450 people that she and other volunteers helped.
Tillman statue criticized
Tuesday’s dueling rallies over the federal Affordable Care Act weren’t the only protests greeting lawmakers as they returned to Columbia.
Will Moredock, a journalist who previously worked at The State newspaper and the Charleston City Paper, took out a full page ad in Tuesday’s edition of The State calling for lawmakers to remove the statue of Ben Tillman, a former S.C. governor and U.S. senator at the turn of the 20th century, from the State House grounds.
The ad said segregationist Tillman was a terrorist and a racist, including comments from Tillman saying he would always fight to keep black people from voting.
Legislative reaction was mixed.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said state law placed a moratorium on new State House monuments, adding, “I think that would also include removing statutes.”
“That’s so far off the to-do list, we won’t even take it up,” he said.
However, state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, was pleased by the ad.
“Hope springs eternal,” she said. “I am shocked that the thought has even occurred here. And somebody actually is calling on us to do that? I don’t believe it will happen. But you’ve got this, you’ve got the ‘Truthful Tuesdays’ — my God, South Carolina might be moving in a different direction.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.