By Ruth Conniff on April 27, 2011

Outside a packed town hall meeting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday a crowd of about 100 protesters appeared to be mainly comprised of retired women. They carried signs objecting to Ryan's plans to slash Medicare and Social Security.

Florence Hammelev, who worked for Catholic Social Services until she retired, said she was celebrating her 70th birthday by protesting Paul Ryan's budget plan.

The plan would destroy Medicare and make life much harder for the poor and middle class, she said.

Madison Protest

"He wants to put us at the mercy of the private health insurance corporations with their outrageous CEO compensation," Hammelew said. "Healthcare should be nonprofit."

At Catholic Social Services, "I saw the problems of the poor up close," she added. The Wall Street firms that caused the current recession should pay for it, she said, "not the most vulnerable."

Sandra Lepisto, a retired teacher who now works as a substitute in Ryan's district, carried a sign that said "For the Very Wealthy, This is a Path to Even More Prosperity," on one side and "Use up the Voucher Money and Then What?" on the other -- a reference to Ryan's controversial plan to convert Medicare funding into a voucher program.

Seniors can't buy decent health-insurance coverage for the $5,600 a year the vouchers would be worth, Lepisto and her friends said.

Madison Protest

A new study by David Rosnick and Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research finds that the voucher plan would actually waste $30 trillion. That's because of the waste involved in shifting from a government-run, single-payer system to private health insurers. "This increase in costs -- from waste associated with using a less efficient health care delivery system -- has not received the attention that it deserves in the public debate," Rosnick and Baker write.

"I am on Medicare," said Lepisto. But Ryan's plan would likely only affect people who are younger than she is. "Those are the people I'm marching for."

"My sister, her only income is Social Security," said Kathy Laru, another retired constituent of Ryan's. "If they went to a voucher system for Medicare, she wouldn't have any money left to live on."

Madison Protest

"Of course I don't want to see Medicare and Social Security go away," said Caroline Grace, a retired accountant for a manufacturing firm. But it's more than that. "I'm against the whole Republican ideology. They want to cut taxes and call it trickle-down economics. That doesn't work. They want to destroy the New Deal and take us back 100 years. I've been reading about this for years. People didn't believe they would go after Social Security and Medicare, but it's not under the radar anymore."

That "under the radar" extremism has worked very well for Ryan, who has continually voted against his own constituents' interests -- opposing the extension of unemployment benefits and relief for people whose homes are foreclosed in his working-class district. Now he is a big star in the Republican Party. Veteran political reporter Mara Liasson called his budget plan "the financial platform of the party" today on NPR.

But as his extreme views come clear, his constituents are getting more and more restless.

"There's a reason you don't talk about changing Social Security and Medicare," said John Heckenlively, a longtime labor and Democratic Party activist who ran a poorly financed campaign against Ryan in the last election. "The Republicans have really driven the bus over the cliff on this one."

Heckenlively accused Ryan of planning to do away with Social Security and Medicare during the campaign, but Ryan assured voters that he would never hurt the programs. "He would frequently cite the fact that his father died when he was a teenager, and he and his mother got survivors' benefits," Heckenlively says. "Then he would say 'I believe in Social Security, and I'm not for destroying Social Security,' But it's almost impossible to read this bill and not come to the conclusion that it is a plan to eliminate Social Security."

In Washington, Ryan voted with the most conservative members of his party again and again. But back home, his friendly, approachable manner made him seem like a moderate.

Now that he is the poster boy for the conservative revolution, that's changing.

Madison Protest

An incumbent who was the youngest member to sit on Ways and Means and became ranking member of the Budget Committee, Ryan is a powerful fundraiser, raking in over $3 million in the last election cycle. That has made the national Democratic Party reluctant to put any resources into a race to take him on -- especially in a year when "they had 50 fires they were putting out, with a huge number of freshmen they had to defend," as Heckenlively puts it.

"We've had difficulty finding someone who's a good candidate," Heckenlively adds, diffidently. "I certainly did not have the resources you'd need to take on someone who is a 12-year incumbent. He's never had a serious challenge since he's gotten into the House."

Madison Protest

If being the face of the Republican revolution doesn't do it, a whole lot of determined retired women putting on their tennis shoes just might.

"It's just morally wrong," says Lepisto. "I think they've awakened a sleeping giant, and we are more numerous than their wealthy constituents are."

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "What Now Wisconsin II: A Real Plan to Fight Back."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.

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BREAKING NEWS: Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson of Bhopal infamy died a fugitive from justice. The Progressive got...

This Halloween movie will scare anyone who cares about news.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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