April 2, 2010

Some spectators praise Obama; other pan him


PORTLAND -- It was still dark and peaceful Thursday morning when Judie Giusti marked her spot on the concrete sidewalk outside the Portland Expo.

First in line at 4:59 a.m. to see President Obama's speech, she wasn't alone for long.

By afternoon, thousands waited under a blue sky. The line eventually doubled and tripled, until it ran the length of Park Avenue and turned down Deering Avenue to the Interstate 295 overpass.

People crammed beside barricades in front of the building, waved handmade signs, held bouquets of artificial daffodils. Some rang bells in protest.

Each had a story.

"He needs all of us to support him," said Giusti, who lives in Portland. "I cannot wait to see him. We're really here to thank him."

"Yes We Can" posters and "Standing together for Health" signs were distributed through the crowd -- students, families, retirees, business owners, those with and without health care, even small children and a few dogs.

"A lot of kids our age won't have the opportunity to enjoy such a monumental moment," said Erickia LaChance, 18, who came down from Waterville with a friend and a cardboard cutout of Obama. "It's really reassuring to know if we ever get sick there would be health care."

Sitting cross-legged on the pavement, Will Douglas, 24, and Daniel Crothers, 25, worked on laptops perched on chairs in front of them.

Crothers is a pre-medical student and Douglas was studying for the Medical College Admission Test. Both attend the University of Southern Maine.

"I'm here with zero health insurance," said Crothers, who is originally from Kingston, Ontario. "Up until this big step, I figured I'd drive home to Canada if I got sick."

Just before noon, protesters began to arrive, numbering in the hundreds. Many rang hand-held bells and held signs challenging Obama and the health care law.

Just after 2:30 p.m., a Coast Guard helicopter made a series of sweeps as the crowd's energy swirled in anticipation of Obama's arrival.

Jenny Wiggins, a 52-year-old professor from Portland, took time off from work to welcome the president. She held a sign made by her children, thanking Obama for pushing the legislation to change health care.

"I'm just so happy to be here," Wiggins said.

Tom Bolduc, who arrived early from Lewiston, said, "I wanted to come down and thank the man personally even if it's only cheering and yelling. ... I want him to know that I appreciate the work he's done."

Most never saw Obama's entrance into the building -- just a brief moment when suited men and women whisked him in through a side entrance, followed by the word trickling through the masses that the president had arrived.

Chants of "Yes we can" rang out intermittently as people clutched tickets and moved forward in the line.

An unlucky few hundred with tickets never got in.

White House officials said Portland's fire marshal limited attendance at the last minute because the building had reached capacity. Ninety percent of ticket holders were admitted, they said.

Many who did hear the president's speech came out inspired.

Emma Amborn, 33, of Portland has lived with the autoimmune disorder lupus for 13 years. "He was very inspiring," she said. "I've been through so many struggles (with health care). It's great to see it finally addressed."

She was joined by her niece, Sandy Amborn, an environmental worker who said: "I loved the sense of unity in the room."

Kevin Berrier, 42, of Lewiston, who is disabled, waited in line for three hours on Wednesday to get tickets, and another three hours on Thursday to get into the building.

"I'm very inspired. I'm just very happy the bill passed," he said.

Kaylon Brown and Henry Loughlin, seniors from Freeport High, stood in line with two friends. They were the last four to be let into the building.

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