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Published April 28 2011

Berg met with praise, criticism

FARGO – Medicare, America’s financial crisis and last year’s health care reform law were among the predominant topics of conversation during a fiery town hall meeting with Republican Rep. Rick Berg here Wednesday.

About 125 people of various political views came to hear from North Dakota’s freshman congressman, who campaigned last year on bringing the “North Dakota way” to Washington.

Several residents praised Berg for his work during his first months on Capitol Hill, but many at Wednesday’s town hall criticized him – voicing frustration with votes in favor of changes to Medicare payments, repealing health care reform and extending tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest Americans.

Mitch Axness of Fargo referenced Berg’s campaign slogan in expressing his anger to the congressman.

“During the campaign, you said when you got to Washington, you’d do things the North Dakota way,” Axness said. “I’m wondering how doing things the ‘North Dakota way’ is taking from the elderly, disabled and the poor and lining the pockets of the wealthy?”

Other residents also called on Berg to answer for campaign remarks he made last year. Fargo resident Ruth Stefonowicz asked Berg how often he had voted against GOP leadership, referencing an attack Berg made against then-incumbent Democrat Earl Pomeroy, whom he accused of always voting with Democratic leaders. Berg couldn’t immediately provide a statistic on his voting record but mentioned he’d cast about 250 votes since taking office.

Stefonowicz, among others, also condemned Berg for his repeated use of the word “Obamacare,” a term coined by Republicans who opposed health care reform under President Barack Obama’s plan.

“I do not want to hear the word ‘Obamacare’ again,” Stefonowicz said to a roar of applause. “The health issue has been out there for years and years and years, and many presidents have tried to put something in place. Obama did have the courage to put a plan in place.”

Berg defended his votes in Congress, stressing the need for tough decisions – including necessary spending cuts in the face of record deficits. When the town hall grew heated at times, Berg would throw in a joke to lighten the mood.

Meanwhile, several Republican supporters spoke out in support of Berg’s efforts during the 90-minute event.

Jerry Ustanko of Fargo said a plan by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to turn Medicare payments into a voucher system “is the only plan that makes sense right now.” Critics accused Berg on Wednesday of supporting Ryan’s plan through a recent House vote, but Berg said he doesn’t support vouchers.

“We need a road map,” Ustanko said. “If we don’t get together and talk about this – and instead slam it down everybody’s throat – we’re going to get nothing. Medicare will go bankrupt; is that the future we want?”

Longtime Fargo business owner Bernie Dardis also rose to Berg’s defense, asking North Dakotans to be patient.

“Give this man a chance,” Dardis said. “This is a good man. We have to give him time to help us fix the problem. He’s part of the answer. He’s not part of the problem – at this point.”

Dardis’ comments also drew applause from the crowd, demonstrating the bipartisan audience Berg’s appearance drew.

Wednesday’s town hall was the third such event Berg has held this month. Berg’s State Director Tom Nelson said Berg intends to hold more town halls across North Dakota throughout his term.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541