There was placard waving, intense wireless messaging by political activists and a scholarly slide show of retirement projections and fiscal forecasts.
But at the heart of a carefully orchestrated face-off over Social Security in Fairfax City yesterday was an extended public back-and-forth between Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and a persistent 74-year-old real estate agent named Teddy Goodson.
Robert Nicklas of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees holds a copy of a pledge the union urged Davis to sign.
(Photos Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Davis had sent postcards inviting constituents to a series of town hall meetings on whatever topics they wanted to talk about. Organizers with the liberal Campaign for America's Future, public employee unions and the group MoveOn.org, among others, saw an opportunity to pressure a powerful Republican, as they have done in similar settings nationwide.
That meant that about 100 eager, and at times restless, listeners were on hand for an animated but civil exchange on a topic President Bush has thrust to the front of the national conversation: his proposal to overhaul Social Security by creating private accounts and making other changes.
Following general queries on everything from Iraq and global warming to federal contracting and temporary work visas, Goodson stood before a crowd packed into City Council chambers and started in.
"I'm older than Social Security," she began, challenging Davis to distance himself from Bush's idea of allowing younger workers to rely in part on private accounts within Social Security. Workers would swap some government guarantees for the possibility of higher returns and more control.
"We've had that," said Goodson, a Fairfax City resident. "It didn't work. People lost their retirement. It melted away in the Great Depression. It really is going to destroy Social Security as a program."
Davis acknowledged that private accounts, on their own, could make the Social Security system "less viable by 2018" because of the large borrowing that would be necessary to cover the cost of moving to the new system.
Goodson, who said she was a Republican for 60 years before an aversion to Bush pushed her away, cut back in. "I think it's cockamamie! Before we gallop ahead and get stampeded, do you have solutions?"
Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, started again, saying he was "nervous about borrowing a trillion or two extra dollars" to launch the private accounts but understands that yields are better in the stock market, where personal accounts could be invested, than in the Social Security system.
"Right now," Goodson chimed back, referring to possible downturns in the market.
Davis threw questions back to the crowd: Would they support raising the retirement age? Raising the cap on wages subject to Social Security taxes? Reducing benefits for wealthier recipients?
Hands shot up, yes and no, in various concentrations. Davis was noncommittal, pending specifics from Bush and more town hall meetings, he said.
"We need to keep our powder dry on this one," he said.
And Goodson? "He had some fancy footwork there," she said.