FARGO -- The morning started with emotional speeches from a Fargodome parking lot stage -- and chanting and waving of flags from beyond the yellow tape that separated supporters and opponents of comprehensive health care reform.

Then, there was some name-calling and angry shouting, before a strange thing happened: People settled down to quiet talks across the yellow tape.

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A Saturday pro-reform rally drew several hundred supporters looking to encourage the state's Congressional representatives to tackle reform as they return to Washington after the August recess. The rally was organized by NDPeople.org, a progressive advocacy group, and garnered support from nearly two dozen labor, children's advocacy, faith and other groups.

Organizers said about 800 supporters showed up for the rally.

Reform proposals

About a hundred opponents of reform proposals gathered along North University Drive. Conservative radio host Scott Hennen had urged listeners to send a competing message -- and welcome Ross Ueckert, a Beach, N.D., native who is walking from Medora, N.D., to Washington, D.C., in protest of government overreaching.

The event began with a recording of a speech by late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a long-time supporter of universal health care. Reform supporters cheered. Opponents booed.

Then, a slew of speakers took the stage. Fargo state Sen. Tim Mathern decried the rise in health-cost-related bankruptcies.

As counter-rally participants chanted "No Obamacare," Heidi Heitkamp, the former North Dakota attorney general, spoke of a letter from a single mom and breast cancer survivor she received almost 10 years ago, shortly after Heitkamp herself was diagnosed with the disease. The mom wrote that she had to take a second job to pay for treatments.

"No single mom should ever have to get a second job to pay for her health care," Heitkamp said. "We don't live in that country."


Organizers provided stationery and cell phones for those looking to contact their representatives on the spot. Attendees signed Band-Aid-shaped slots on a petition calling for a public insurance plan option.

Pat Dubord, a retired teacher, said she drove from Dent, Minn., for the rally out of concern for the millions of Americans who can't afford health insurance or are disqualified for a pre-existing condition.

"I have health insurance, and I think everyone should have it," she said. "We should be like the rest of the industrialized world."

Across the yellow tape, Karen Riggle drove from Ponsford, Minn., because she worries about the trillion-dollar price tag of reform proposals at a time of soaring deficits. She expressed concern about government interference with health care decisions, such as end-of-life care.

"We need healthcare reform," she said, "but not in the form of government-run health care."

Labor unions

In recent days, Hennen has played up the financial support of labor unions for the event, which he said took away from its grass-roots credibility.

"This is a staged, phony event," Hennen said. "The only way they can show support is to bus people in, pay for sandwiches and hire a band."

Organizer Don Morrison, of NDPeople.org, countered that labor unions are themselves grassroots, member-driven organizations. He said the Service Employees International Union paid for two buses -- one from Grand Forks and one from Bismarck -- and covered part of the cost of renting Fargodome space.

"The power of money is on the opposing side right now," Morrison said. "It's an uphill battle to have the voice of ordinary people be heard."

After the band Low took the stage, some rally participants drifted over to the counter-rally. At first, there was angry shouting as security personnel admonished people to step away from the yellow tape. Reform supporters accused opponents of being short on compassion. Opponents shouted back, "thugs" and "abortionists."

But later, the two groups got to talking quietly. Supporters shared stories of life without health care coverage. Opponents spoke of the need for tort reform.

The pro-reform rally was one of an estimated 500 events across the country as part of an effort led by Health Care for America Now, an umbrella organization of groups pushing for a comprehensive health care overhaul.