The gathering in a Dubuque high school gym went on for more than an hour like that: angry questions, political explanations, boos from the bleachers.
Barbara Rank, a retired special education teacher, did not get up from her seat like many of her neighbors did. “I did not have a question to ask,” she told The Washington Post. But the next day, on her morning walk past a boulevard of government-maintained flowers, Rank realized she had a response to Blum. She wrote it down in 96 words and sent it to her local newspaper — and since then, more than 100,000 people have offered a fair critique.
Rank, 63, has an AOL email account but no Facebook account. She learned what Reddit was only on Friday, she said, when her daughter informed her that someone had posted a snapshot of her letter under the headline, “This is democracy manifest,” and that tens of thousands of people were voting it onto the website's front page.
“It makes me laugh,” Rank said. “It's such a silly little piece.”
Tell that to the Daily Kos, where a writer thanks her “for calling out ignorant so-called public servants like Rod Blum of Iowa.”
Or to thousands of like-minded commenters on Reddit and Twitter.
So on Monday morning, a week after the town hall meeting, Rank helped her grandson off to school and explained her writing process to The Post.
She hasn't been politically active since college, she said. But as she taught in schools around the United States, she has made a point of reading the local newspaper in each city — writing in whenever “I get fired up.”
And sure enough, Blum's town hall gathering got her fired her up, even if she didn't say so that evening.
Rank wakes up before 7 a.m. every day, she said, and walks four miles through Dubuque to get the first cup of coffee from a bakery. “That's my thinking time,” she said. On Tuesday, she was thinking about what Blum had said — about men being forced to pay for maternity insurance.
“Come on,” she said. “Didn't we learn this in fifth-grade social studies?”
Her walk parallels the Mississippi River and the great public bridges that span it into other states. Thus her question in the letter: “Why should I pay for a bridge …”
“Then I thought about the sidewalk,” she said. “There's a neighboring town where two months ago a big issue was people didn't want to pay for sidewalks.”
And she'd heard of another town that had a dust-up over a library. A day after Rank's letter to the editor ran, the New York Times wrote about a small city in Oregon whose libraries are all closing amid an anti-tax movement.
“Then the flowers,” Rank said. She walks along Grandview Avenue, which veers away from the Mississippi, leading her toward the bakery along a mile and a half of gardened boulevards and parks she's still discovering after three years in Dubuque.
Rank returned to Iowa after her father died, to be closer to her daughters and help raise her grandson. She went to college in the state many years ago, she said, “when there was a big controversy about paying to have this piece of art put up on campus.”
“I just thought it looked like a piece of metal,” she said. “Some people appreciate some things; other people don't.”
She wrote one of her first letters to the editor about that artwork, she said, and referred to it in her reply to Blum: “Why should I pay for a flower I won’t smell, a park I don’t visit, or art I can’t appreciate?”
Rank finished her tiny essay in about half an hour and sent it off.
“The conclusion is something I always end up saying,” she said. “Every argument I've ever had with somebody, friends or relative: Don't you want to live in a civil society? Government is the structure of the country we live in. It's not as bad as people make it out to be.”
She didn't expect many people to read it. She expected criticism, like a few early comments on the Telegraph Herald's website:
“Did you ever consider personal responsibility?” someone wrote Friday before the letter spread much wider.
A spokesman for Blum said his remarks about maternity insurance were taken out of context. “He was referring to the idea of patients being able to choose health insurance policies that fit their needs, rather than one size fits all policies filled with government mandates,” the spokesman wrote. “Obviously he understands that taxes pay for things that not everybody uses. "
Rank said she's fine with criticism, varying opinions and all.
“I got a text from one of my nieces,” she said. “She put it really well: 'Whatever. To 60,000 people, you just said what they think.'”