Dayton gives health care reform protesters the mic at event
ST. PAUL - Mark Dayton's first official act as Minnesota governor, signing up for a federal medical program, drew a large protest and he even handed over the microphone to three people who oppose his action.
Dayton's staff allowed protesters into the Governor's Reception Room, something that seldom happened in the past, and scuffles developed when state troopers tried to prevent the group taking in signs questioning the constitutionality of the state accepting federal health care money.
When Dayton entered the room to make a few remarks, he announced that opponents would have the same opportunity to speak as those who support his actions. That somewhat quieted the protesters, some of whom later thanked him for sharing the microphone.
"It is the people's room," Dayton said. "This is where democracy occurs."
The main executive order Democrat Dayton signed, his first since taking office at 12:34 p.m. Monday, was to get Minnesota involved in an expanded federal Medicaid program, known as Medical Assistance in Minnesota. That is to provide money to expand health-care programs for the poor.
The second executive order removes a ban Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty put in place on requests for federal health-care funds.
Republican legislative leaders immediately decried Dayton joining President Barack Obama's federal health plans. Their response was mild compared to those Dayton allowed in the room where his signing ceremony took place.
One of the three people Dayton asked to respond, Jack McMillian of Annandale, said the U.S. Constitution does not allow the government to be involved in health care.
"I'm thinking to myself, where's the church?" he said, because the church and non-profit organizations should provide health care to the poor.
McMillian said that if the federal government provides health care, it creates "a crippling effect" on government that eventually destroys the system.
Before the ceremony, Fremont Gruss of Deep Haven loudly protested when a trooper removed his sign tying government-run health care to socialism.
One of dozens of protesters, including several from the Tea Party, Gruss was allowed to remain in the governor's office suite. Other, smaller, signs remained as the protesters packed the room, already containing legislators and others who had worked for the Medical Assistance expansion.
"I'm for freedom and liberty," the 86-year-old Gruss said after fighting the trooper.
As a baby cried loudly in a room filled with boos and cheers, Dayton began the ceremony with: "This is an office where all points of view are honored and respected."
A crowd of veteran legislators sitting in the front was surprised
"In all the years of Pawlenty in the office, I never saw signs in the office," said former Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was House speaker until Tuesday.
Later, she said: "We have a governor who is as statement and a grownup."
A Democratic-Farmer-Laborite health-care leader, Rep. Tom Huntley of Duluth, sat quietly next to Kelliher.
"I've never seen where a bunch of very noisy protesters were allowed to speak their piece," Huntley said.
After the ceremony, Dayton shook hands with supporters of the order he signed, then dived into the crowd of opponents, many of whom shook his hand with frowns on their faces. Others thanked him for letting their side speak.
Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.