Chanting “no cuts to Medicaid,” protesters disrupt Sen. Cory Gardner’s speech to the Western Conservative Summit

Dawn Russell watches Cory Gardner speak at the Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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Dawn Russell watches Cory Gardner speak at the Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) western conservative summit; wcs; protest; cory gardner; healthcare; adapt; medicaid; denver; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
Dawn Russell watches Cory Gardner speak at the Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Chanting “No cuts to Medicaid! Save our liberty!” a half dozen protesters from ADAPT interrupted Sen. Cory Gardner as he addressed the Western Conservative Summit Friday evening.

This is the same group and many of the same individuals who spent 58 hours in Gardner’s office in late June in an effort to secure a “no” vote on Republican health care efforts from Colorado’s Republican senator. They fear that cuts to Medicaid will endanger the community- and home-based services that allow them to live independent lives.

Gardner had said he would not give a policy-heavy speech, and he opened with a joke about how nice it is to be back in Colorado after the oppressive humidity of Washington, D.C., followed by a story about his wife explaining to their 5-year-old that nothing in life is free except “love and hugs.” The boy persisted by bringing up “buy one, get one free.”

“It’s going to be a while before he’s reading Hayek, but we’re working on it,” Gardner said.

And then he described how moved he was to meet with two WWII veterans. They were survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack and had come to Washington to seek recognition for the man who saved their lives in defiance of a direct order.

When the protesters took up their chant, Gardner invoked the First Amendment as security began to escort the protesters out of the main ballroom in the Colorado Convention Center.

“Those two gentlemen from World War II, my guess is that they’d be grateful that people can express their voices in this room tonight,” Gardner said to strong applause. The summit participants in the ballroom then chanted “USA! USA! USA!” over the protesters.

“We have to listen to the disparate voices,” Gardner continued. “That’s what makes this nation strong, that is who we are and those are the values that the Western Conservative Summit celebrates.”

The activists all wore tags that showed they paid to get into the summit. A day pass costs $120.

The Colorado Convention Center is private property, and no one has a right to be there. Protesters, several of whom use wheelchairs, continued to chant in the corridor outside the ballroom as Denver police officers asked them calmly to leave. It appeared that the protesters were going to be arrested, and several were being held in handcuffs.

I didn’t see all of what happened next and heard contradictory accounts of it. Denver police officers told one set of protesters that their compatriots had agreed to leave voluntarily and so were not cited. Police offered to remove handcuffs and not issue citations to those protesters if they left as well.

But later in the evening, activist Dawn Russell, who was with the first group escorted out, said she didn’t agree to leave so much as she was deposited outside the convention center.

Asked if she had come there prepared to be arrested, she said, “Oh my goodness, yes.”

Dawn Russell is led out of the Colorado Convention Center after prostesting inside the Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) western conservative summit; wcs; protest; cory gardner; healthcare; adapt; medicaid; denver; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
Dawn Russell is led out of the Colorado Convention Center after protesting inside the Western Conservative Summit. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A police officer on the scene said none of the six protesters will be cited.

Earlier this week, protesters charged in connection with the office sit-in all pleaded not guilty to trespassing and related charges. And on Friday, the Denver Post reported that Gardner has been subpoenaed in relation to another office protest, as he is the listed victim of the sit-in.

ADAPT protesters have followed Gardner around D.C. and Colorado and staged repeated protests.

“This is worth it because of the cuts to Medicaid,” said Jacqueline Mitchell, who has cerebral palsy. At the time she was handcuffed and detained, though she was later released.

“We’ve been trying to track down Cory Gardner for a year,” she said. “This is the only way we can get his attention.”

The Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) western conservative summit; wcs; protest; cory gardner; healthcare; adapt; medicaid; denver; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
The Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Gardner said that the rapid growth of Medicaid under Obamacare had created instability. Rolling back the expansion would protect money for people with disabilities, who get their coverage under the regular Medicaid program, not the ACA expansion.

“We focus our health care efforts on those who need it most,” he said.

Russell rejected this defense of the Republican bill.

“They’re trying to pit us against another group of people who also need health care,” she said.

Gardner has repeatedly said he’s undecided on the particulars of Republican bills, even on a straight repeal vote, which he voted in favor of back in 2015.

He didn’t sound undecided, though, in his remarks, as he listed what many conservatives see as the failings of Obamacare: rising premiums, canceled policies, insurers pulling out the marketplace and fewer choices.

“We have to build a health care system in this country that increases the quality of care and decreases the cost of care and does it by giving consumers more choice, more options and more freedom,” he said.

Earlier this week, he warned Democrats about “spiking the football” when yet another Republican effort seemed doomed because the problems of Obamacare remain and have to be dealt with.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has now put forward a “repeal-and-delay” bill. Whether there are enough Republican votes to move forward with debate on that bill depends in large part on whether Sen. John McCain of Arizona is able to return to the Senate. The Senate’s parliamentarian has also raised issues with the bill.

Gardner did not make himself available for interviews after his speech, but Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who made a brief stop at the event, said Republicans have to find a way forward.

“Everyone wants to get this done,” he said. “There is not a Republican who doesn’t understand the consequences of not dealing with health care.”

Jacqueline Mitchell (left to right) Dawn Russell and LB Smith protest outside the Colorado Convention Center after interrupting the Western Conservative Summit, July 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) western conservative summit; wcs; protest; cory gardner; healthcare; adapt; medicaid; denver; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
Jacqueline Mitchell (left to right) Dawn Russell and LB Smith protest outside the Colorado Convention Center after interrupting the Western Conservative Summit. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This story has been updated throughout.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.