Retirees starting to protest at GOP campaign stops

Aug 30 2011 - 11:41am

CONCORD. N.H. -- This campaign season, Republican presidential candidates and New Hampshire's congressmen have been met by groups of old folks carrying signs and making their voices heard on maintaining programs like Social Security and Medicare. Texas Gov. Rick Perry got an earful at a protest in Portsmouth on Aug. 18, and a group gathered outside a Mitt Romney town hall event in Lebanon last week.

Behind much of the activity is the Alliance for Retired Americans, a national advocacy group launched in New Hampshire in 2007. The alliance itself was founded by the AFL-CIO in 2001, spokesman Michael Buckley said Monday from its Washington headquarters.

It counts about 4 million members nationwide, with roughly four out of five signed up through a union.

"The goal is to bring union retirees and other people together around retiree issues in a political action kind of way," Buckley said. "Union members have been active in politics their whole lives and this is a way of keeping it going."

In New Hampshire, organizer Terry Lochhead, a 64-year-old from Canterbury, said the alliance numbers about 13,000 members. The state chapter -- independent of the AFL-CIO and funded by member fees -- has sent out newsletters since its inception.

But it didn't make a splash until recently, when Republican candidates' talk of reforming Social Security and moving toward privatizing Medicare pushed local members to become more visible on the campaign trail.

"Really, the candidates came into our focus. We have always focused on these big benefit programs," Lochhead said. "It's a perfect storm of presidential candidates supporting proposals to balance the budget on the backs of seniors and working families."

She said the group has protested at multiple town hall events for U.S. Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta. After both Republicans voted earlier this year in favor of privatizing Medicare, the alliance organized protests at their offices in Nashua and Manchester.

The president of New Hampshire's alliance chapter, Charles Balban, 58, spent 30 years as a sheet metal worker in Manchester before problems with his back and arms pushed him into disability retirement.

"I found myself sitting on the edge of my chair, yelling at the TV about what was going on with the state and federal government," Balban said. Through the alliance, he hopes to "have an impact on the things that I care about."

Balban said he would like to see Social Security's solvency maintained by raising the cap on taxable income, now set at $106,000, or increasing contribution rates. He fears the retirement age will be raised or benefits cut.

Republican presidential candidates have generally said they would alter Social Security for future generations, not current retirees. But Lochhead said she doesn't understand "why it would be any less nasty to ... ensure that the younger generation would work forever."

"A lot of (the alliance's activism) is fueled by worrying about what would be there for their children and grandchildren," Buckley said.

Though unions advocate for strong pension benefits for their employees, Buckley said the alliance's focus on social programs for retirees reflects the changing times.

"Private pensions are unfortunately becoming a thing of the past, as well as retiree health benefits, and an increasing number of workers will be relying exclusively on Social Security and Medicare," he said.

Deb Nelson, a Democratic activist from Hanover, last week accompanied alliance protesters outside of Romney's event. Though campaign protests aren't likely to change a candidate's mind, Nelson said, "if they only operate in a vacuum where they only hear what they think they know, that's not a very helpful political process."

At the Perry event in Portsmouth earlier in August, questioners peppered the Texas governor about statements in his 2010 book, "Fed Up," that imply Social Security is unconstitutional. That day, Perry's spokesman told a Wall Street Journal reporter he had never heard the governor suggest the program was unconstitutional and said the book does not express Perry's current views on how to fix the program.

"Here's someone from Texas who felt that that would be a popular thing to say, and he comes to New Hampshire and gets some real grassroots feedback about it," Lochhead said. "I don't think you're going to hear him talk about that again."


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