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New address, but a familiar Tuesday protest for Toomey

When U.S. Senator Pat Toomey announced he’d be moving his Pittsburgh district office from its long-time Station Square location to a Downtown office building this month, some of the protesters who’ve been holding weekly “Tuesday with Toomey” demonstrations there were suspicious it was an attempt to dodge them.

But it isn’t playing out that way so far, based on the first Tuesday at Mr. Toomey’s new digs, in the Grant Building. More than 100 people appeared outside the building for the lunchtime protest, focusing their ire on recently unveiled Republican efforts to roll back former President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act. 

“We got a lot of people here,”  said Jennifer McDowell, one of the event’s organizers. “We were worried about the rain, but we were lucky it held off.” 

As has happened at previous events, a delegation of protesters spoke to Toomey office staff in the building’s lobby. Building security took the protest in stride, Ms. McDowell said. “We spoke with them in advance to start building a relationship.”

This week’s event was mid-sized, compared to other protests in town, whose attendance has ranged from a few dozen in the first couple weeks to a few hundred. Ms. McDowell said that Grant Street location drew more onlookers than the somewhat more remote Station Square office at the far side of the Smithfield Street Bridge. “We had a lot more cars honking in support,” she said. 

Still, the old location did have an advantage: A circular driveway just off the Smithfield Bridge allowed large numbers of protesters to crowd together without disrupting pedestrian or vehicular traffic. The sidewalks of Grant Street are more constrained, but protesters took pains to line up on both sides of the sidewalk, allowing lunchtime office workers to pass through. 

“We were very conscious of not wanting to interfere with them,” said Ms. McDowell.

The Tuesday with Toomey event has focused on a number of issues, with the demand for an in-person “town hall” meeting at the top of the list. Mr. Toomey has resisted such calls without rejecting them outright: He and his office have previously said he currently has no such events scheduled. But he has used alternative events to address public concerns, holding a tele-town hall and, on Monday, an online forum with a Philadelphia TV reporter asking questions submitted by social media.

During that forum, Mr. Toomey addressed concerns about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. “We’re not going to pull the rug out from anyone,” he said, offering a common Republican refrain based on plans to phase out aspects of the ACA, leaving items like the Medicaid expansion in place until 2020.

Mr. Toomey said he would also review how a repeal plan took care of “people who have chronic expensive healthcare needs. ... the way I want to solve it is have [people with costly care] put in a pool where insurers compete to cover them. We provide the subsidy that is needed” to make the insurance affordable. 

The feasibility of such an approach is hotly debated. And such assurances seemed unlikely to sway protesters on Grant Street Tuesday. One sign held aloft at the event, for example, complained that repeal would leave out the poor, the middle class and the elderly, instead “supported insurance companies, the wealthy, and the “young w/$$$.” 

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533