Obama health care speech throws spotlight on small town

Protesters and supporters alike gathered for Obama.
Protest and patrons supporting President Barack Obama line the streets outside St. Charles High School on Wednesday before Obama's speech inside the school. Obama visited St. Charles to speak about health insurance reform.

ST. CHARLES — Lady Di's Diner does not normally make double cheeseburgers. It has got a quarter pound patty and a half-pound patty. Singles only — except when the president is in town.

Only Wednesday could you get the Obama Burger at this restaurant across the street from St. Charles High School, where the president spoke. The two-patty sandwich was not the only sign that something big was going on in this town of 60,000.

From the satellite trucks rumbling in the diner's parking lot, to the crowds of protesters lining the normally tranquil streets nearby, President Barack Obama's speech on hotly contested health care reform threw a big spotlight on this St. Louis suburb. But despite the high-profile issue, it was obvious this stop would be different from a discussion in Washington or a major metropolis.

The crowd of people protesting against the proposed reform package held signs with similar messages and many of the same flags, but most said they had come alone or with their family and not as members of any specific political movement like the Tea Party movement.

Most were dressed in casual clothes, though a few donned notable garb, like a kilt and a doctor's coat. John Cantrell, from St. Charles, wore a double sign over his body, the sign on his back quoting a Roman senator about respecting constituents' decisions.

"You have to respect the individual," Cantrell said. "I would really like someone to tell me where they get the authority to mandate all this."

Along Bennett Avenue near Ferguson Street, Obama supporters also held signs but had no flags or costumes. The crowd was younger, with some teenagers waiting for the president and smaller children playing in front yards of houses closest to the school.

Every person in that group pointed reporters toward one man: St. Louis resident Frank Scimo, who supports the health reform bill because it would help patients with pre-existing conditions get health insurance. Scimo's adopted daughter, Tara Wheeler, was with him at the protest. Wheeler has knee problems that count as pre-existing conditions.

"I believe in universal health care," Scimo said. "Right now she's got no insurance, and that's just terrible."

Those neighborhood gatherings were a far cry from the raucous protests that awaited the president in St. Louis hours later. A short time before the president spoke to supporters at a reception at the city's Renaissance Grand Hotel, crowds of screaming demonstrators bumped and jostled against steel police gates, with only the chasm of an empty Washington Street separating them. Groups of police officers watched the crowds carefully, and police cars had blocked off several streets around the hotel.

The earlier protests of St. Charles were quiet ones. A few cars honked salutes at the anti-Obama protesters along North Kingshighway Boulevard, but most noise along that road and Bennett Avenue came from quiet conversations among neighbors.

After the president's speech, most of the media left quickly for the reception in St. Louis, and many protesters near the diner had gone home. Jill Miles was the only person still holding a sign as she talked to a neighbor walking his dog.

Miles, who said she has lived her entire life in St. Charles, said most people do not have time to leave their jobs to protest national policies. Miles said, though, it was important that politicians hear from their constituents in person.

Like many of the others at the protest, Miles said she is just a local resident, looking to be heard.

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