By Jim Thomma
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democrats’ unsuccessful vice presidential nominee, kicked off his remarks at a health care rally at Capitol Square by recounting the first vote in the Republicans’ renewed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“I stood up,” Kaine said. “I said, ‘Madame Clerk, I was sick and you visited me. I vote no.’”
With that biblical reference, Kaine cast one of 48 Democratic votes against the budget reconciliation measure that would streamline the dismantling of the health care law, also known as Obamacare. But the Republicans pushed the measure through the U.S. Senate with 51 votes on Thursday.
At the rally, Kaine said the GOP lacks a plan to replace the health insurance coverage for the 30 million people estimated by the Urban Institute to have benefited from the ACA.
“Why don’t we just jump off a cliff and then we’ll figure out how to land when we’re in mid-air?” Kaine said.
The Richmond demonstration was one of more than a dozen rallies staged in cities across the country on Sunday in response to a call from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
An estimated 600-700 people turned out for the rally on the state Capitol grounds, waving signs emblazoned “RVA for ACA” and “NO REPEAL. NO REPLACE.”
Kaine was joined by a host of Virginia Democratic officials, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, U.S. Reps. Don McEachin of Richmond and Bobby Scott of Newport News, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination this year.
Also in attendance were former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who is challenging Northam to be the Democratic nominee for governor, and three candidates for lieutenant governor – Justin Fairfax, Susan Platt and Gene Rossi.
McEachin, who won election to the redrawn 4th Congressional District, which now includes Richmond, thanked the cheering crowd.
“Because of you, I was able to make my first speech on the House floor a defense of the Affordable Care Act,” McEachin said.
A similar budget reconciliation measure passed the House of Representatives on Friday. As with the Senate, the vote broke along party lines.
Republicans say that health insurance premiums have skyrocketed for many Americans as a result of the ACA and that the law is a burden on businesses. They say the election of Donald Trump as president has given them a mandate to get rid of Obamacare.
“What they would have you believe is that they base their decisions on Judeo-Christian principles,” McEachin said.
“If I could speak from my own tradition just for a moment,” McEachin said, “when Christ came out of the wilderness, the first thing he said was, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, to give good news to the poor.’ And that good news has been affordable health care.”
McAuliffe criticized Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly for refusing to expand Medicaid coverage as the Affordable Care Act encouraged states to do. The expansion would have benefited 400,000 low-income Virginians, supporters say.
“If you got in your car, and you drove 40 miles west (of the Virginia state line), you’re in Kentucky. If you drove 40 miles northwest, you’re in West Virginia. Both of those states have closed the coverage gap” by expanding Medicaid, McAuliffe said.
“This is the commonwealth of Virginia. We should lead the nation, not follow.”
McAuliffe added that once he finishes battling Republican lawmakers in the Virginia Capitol, he would lead the charge up to “that other white building in Washington.”
Attendees at the rally also heard from a young mother who obtained health insurance through the ACA – Ashley Hawkins, the founder and executive director of a small nonprofit arts organization.
“To put this in perspective, without insurance through the ACA,” Hawkins said, looking down at the baby cradled in her arms, “Zoey’s recent hospital birth would have been one-third of my annual salary.”
“The ACA made it possible for me to insure myself and my children and still work in the nonprofit field, without fearing that my family’s health will suffer because I dedicated myself to public service,” Hawkins said.
“The ACA made the future bright. It made all the hard work worth it. And now, for me and 30 million American citizens, the future is both terrifying and uncertain.”
Northam, a pediatric neurologist from Norfolk, addressed the crowd wearing a white lab coat.
“While I have given up my medical practice to run to be the 73rd governor of the commonwealth,” Northam said, “I will always be a doctor. I will always make sure that you have access to affordable care.”
Perriello, whose single congressional term ended the same year the ACA was passed, said it was worth doing the right thing, despite the political price.
“Some people think I lost my seat in Congress because of supporting the Affordable Care Act, and I can tell you one thing: I have never regretted it for a single day.”
The speeches during the rally were interrupted several times by microphone outages. But the crowd took the disruptions in stride by chanting “health care is a human right” and “yes we can” and singing the protest hymn “We Shall Overcome.”