Chandler's Basha High School auditorium took on the look and feel of a major sporting event Monday night as more than 1,350 residents from the East Valley stuffed themselves into every nook and cranny allowable by the fire marshal to pepper U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake with questions and criticism about health care reform legislation working through Congress.
What unfolded was perhaps a more civil version of the town hall forums on health care lawmakers hosting across the nation.
At certain times, members of Flake's district, which includes Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction and parts of Mesa and Chandler, booed and shouted, particularly when someone spoke in favor of the health reform legislation under consideration in Washington, D.C.
But outside the auditorium those on both sides of the health care debate were impolite at times.
Kelly Townsend of Gilbert, who criticized the legislation and President Barack Obama, was singled out by another woman from the audience outside the auditorium who told her to go back and finish high school.
Later in the night, just as Brandan Spradling stood in the same foyer describing how civilly the forum was unfolding, an elderly woman walked by and called her "a plant."
"Um ... but that wasn't very nice," she said with a stammer.
Similar town halls around the United States have been raucous at times, with both sides accusing the other of trying to hijack the informational meetings. In some cases, those at odds attempted to shout each other down to stop any discussion of the issue.
Still, both Spradling, who described herself as a proud Democrat, and Townsend, who said she was an active participant in the Valley's "Tea Party" movement, took the heckling in stride.
"People get really upset no matter what side they're on," Townsend said.
Flake, a Republican, described the audience as respectful.
"It was just so much different than the caricature that's going around about these town halls," he said.
"I don't think anybody was shouted down," he added later. "I think it's democracy in action."
Maggie Reef, a Gilbert woman who said she was recently in the hospital with $18,000 in bills and no insurance, said she is still opposed to health insurance paid by the taxpayer. She said she was able to get help from family members and a charity.
"The people that helped me helped me because it was their choice," she said.
Larry Upton, a commercial loan officer, said he is a Republican who's become convinced of the need for health care insurance reform, particularly after his daughter battled cancer and skyrocketing premiums that are now at $921 a month with a deductible at $4,000.
"I'm on Medicare, so I pay $96 a month. If I had to go out and buy a private policy, I couldn't get one. Now my wife ... she pays $76 a month. There's a problem there," he said.
Upton referred to a letter his daughter penned to Flake.
"All I ask is for you to read my daughter's letter," he said. "It's very personal. And then I hope you do all you can to influence the debate to change the system."
Flake said the nation needs health care reform desperately but control of health care shouldn't be transferred to the government.
"This legislation creates an (organizational) chart that only Rube Goldberg could love, placing dozens of boards and commissions and individuals and organizations between you and your doctor and it will not control costs and it won't improve quality, and that's what we should look for in terms of health care reform."
The event took on the feel of a sporting event complete with a prayer, pledge of allegiance, and rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
So many people turned out, a row of cars backed up at least two miles along Val Vista Drive, presumably headed to the school at the northwest corner of Riggs Road and Val Vista Drive.
Event organizers said 500 people were turned away when the auditorium reached capacity, although police and fire officials said about 180 remained outside in the school's parking lot.
Norm Germaine, battalion chief with the Chandler Fire Department, said those who were shut out were understanding.
"Absolutely, the crowd has been very civil tonight," he said.