WILLMAR - Rep. Collin Peterson pulled off a downright kinder and gentler town hall meeting Friday on health care.

The 10-term congressman opened the 2 1/2-hour session by telling nearly 400 constituents that "I'm fair game here. I don't have any problem if you give me hell here, but be respectful of each other."

For the most part, they were (and didn't give Peterson much hell), engaging in little of the shouting, sign-waving and catcalling that has marked similar Democratic town halls across the country.

In fact, for all the attention paid to raucous town halls lately, Peterson's was more in line with the bulk -- an estimated three-quarters -- that have been civil and controlled, according to estimates by the Democratic National Committee.

From the start, Peterson took pains to establish his bonafides with members of the standing-room-only crowd, most of whom were clearly skeptical of the health care overhaul plans currently working their way through Congress.

"I'm not here to sell you anything," he said. "I have not found a bill yet that I can support" -- interrupted by applause -- "I am here to listen and to learn. I believe we have problems in our health care system. We are not spending our money wisely, so I believe we have to do something."

Slowing down the process

Peterson, one of the fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Democrats who may hold the balance of power over the health care legislation in the House, has been under intense pressure from Republicans on the issue. The GOP has mounted an ad blitz against him, first over his declaration that he doesn't hold town halls because so many of "my people" are conspiracy theorists and second this week trying to push him to vote against whatever bill finally emerges.

He told his constituents that "the reason we didn't get this voted on before August was because of me and my buddies. We got too much coming at us too fast."

After a 45-minute tutorial from a handful of local health care providers, more than 40 men and women took to the microphone. While they generally agreed with the providers' assessment that the system is essentially "broken," they veered wildly around the topic, with many coming back to the point that they don't believe the federal government can be trusted to competently manage something as massive and complex as the health care system.

Otter Tail County resident Ginny Saul challenged Peterson on the biggest current flashpoint of the bill: a provision that would pay Medicare providers to hold end-of-life counseling sessions that have been branded "death panels."

Saul said the bill would mandate the counseling, but Peterson vehemently disagreed. "It wasn't mandated," he said. "I think way too much emphasis has been put on this."

"I don't think he gets it," Saul said later. "I'm not saying Peterson in particular, but we cannot trust anyone in Washington."

Legislation must have a "catch''

Beyond health care plan specifics, that sentiment was widespread. "I didn't think anyone in Washington listened to us," said Willmar resident Lee Bryant, a self-described "80-year-old ornery coot." "I always listened to my employer or I knew I'd be fired. I pray you people in Washington start realizing you're our employees."

Perham resident John Minge was booed and told to "shut up" when he criticized "the corporate interests that are incredibly powerful here. They've started a misinformation campaign that is scaring people."

Former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger, a three-decade veteran of the health care wars, also took part in the session. He said he's baffled by the anger and fear that has erupted during this round.

"I think if you look at the audiences, people tend to be fairly dependent on the health care system," he said. "They're unsure about what's in the bill, so they think there must be something wrong, or there wouldn't be all this ruckus. No one cared before, so I can only attribute it to the influence of cable TV."

Greeting Peterson before the session, Durenberger joked, "I never had anything like this at a town hall meeting. What makes you so popular?"

Bob Von Sternberg • 612-673-7184