It was political theatre with tinges of actual theatre; the existential anguish of Waiting for Godot fused with the simmering political outrage of Waiting for Lefty—only there was no script, no acting and everyone knew the title character was never going to show.
But the 480 constituents (and the more than 50 who waited outside) gathered at the Letter Carriers Hall on West Cypress in Tampa Wednesday night voiced their grievances to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., anyway. For two hours, speakers lined up to decry Rubio's positions on healthcare, climate change, immigration and even his absence. This week, lawmakers are on recess and many are in their home districts and states headlining town hall-style events. Rubio, the subject of many "where's Marco?" jokes in recent days, was traveling in Europe this week (though a new video posted via Facebook Live suggests the trip was a short one).
Aside from the empty chair on the stage at the far end of the room supposedly representing Rubio, they were preaching to the choir.
Organizers with a local leg of the Indivisible movement announced the "town hall" meeting last week and said Rubio was invited to attend. They had to know the junior senator and 2016 presidential aspirant would not attend when they set it up. Why would he, spokesman Matt Wolking said in an emailed statement, when "their goal is to stage a hostile atmosphere" in which they shout and jeer at whatever is said for the sake of video to be shared on social media?
Those who had lined up to speak had real concerns, though.
Take Michael Phillips, 36, who lay prone on what looked like a flat wheel chair and spoke via a voice simulator.
“Senator Rubio, I'm here today out of fear," said Tampa resident Michael Phillips. "I fear what could happen to me if Medicaid block granting comes to pass in Florida."
In 2008, Phillips, a blogger who was born with a debilitating case of spinal muscular atrophy that has left him the use of just one thumb and facial muscles, was featured on episodes of both the radio and television versions ofThis American Life. His story caught the eye of host Ira Glass. In the segment, Johnny Depp was his "voice." (See Phillips' blog here.)
Phillips said Medicaid, as it is, allows him to live at home, but if Rubio and his colleagues vote to turn it into a block grant program, which President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan appear to support, it would jeopardize his ability to receive in-home care, and he'd thus be potentially condemned to an outside facility for the rest of his life.
"Though I am quite disabled, Medicaid services allow me to live a full, productive life interacting with the community, being cared for at home," he said. "If Medicaid services are cut or capped because of block grants, I could go from living at home to living in an institution; forced into some room at Tampa General Hospital because no other institution can legally accept dependent patients.”
Though other speakers focused on a range of issues—like doing away with important environmental protections and possibly the Environmental Protection Agency itself, Rubio's reversal on immigration and his support of the anti-public education Betsy DeVos, a huge donor and supporter of his, as education secretary.
“When people are healthy, they can work. When people are well educated, they have more opportunities," said Faithe Estes. "It's simple, no? As the wealthiest nation in the world why can't we support our citizens? The answer is, we can, but we're not doing so.”
The room was at capacity for much of the night; in order for someone to get into the building, another attendee had to first leave. In a covered area just outside the entrance, activists joked and took pictures with a life-size cardboard cutout of Rubio.
Activists are planning a similar event Thursday night in Miami.
At around the same time Wednesday's event was happening, just outside of town in Wesley Chapel, Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis did show up to a listening session despite probably knowing it would be flooded with activists urging him to vote to keep the Affordable Care Act, as they have been doing at every town hall he hosts.