When U.S. Sen. Mark Udall opened the floor for questions at Wednesday's town hall meeting in Durango, health-care reform and climate-change legislation were what people wanted to hear about.
During a little more than an hour, Udall, a Democrat, answered about 15 handwritten questions submitted by the audience. The questions, sorted into two metal buckets, toggled between the topics of health care and energy, which President Barack Obama has made clear are his top domestic priorities.
Attendees quickly surpassed the capacity of the meeting room in the La Plata County Courthouse - about 140 - and about 300 people were left standing outside, though they were able to hear part of the meeting through an audio feed.
Udall received a brief introduction from La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle, who recently left the Democratic Party for an Independent affiliation.
The original focus of the meeting was to be clean energy - which Udall said he came to Southwest Colorado to talk about because of innovative works going on here - but recognizing public interest in other topics, he opened the gathering to questions.
Though cheers and jeers occasionally erupted, Udall's tone remained even throughout the meeting, and the crowd shushed or chided participants who made indecorous outbursts.
One of the first questions was whether a single-payer system was being considered under the reform rubric.
"Single payer was never on the table," Udall said.
He said people should be able to choose from among various insurance options and that affordability is key to bringing everyone under the insurance umbrella.
"We're only a job loss away from not being covered," he said.
When asked if he had read the health-care proposals, he noted that only the House has produced a bill, while in the Senate different proposals are still being refined in committees.
When asked if he would vote to have Congress covered under a government-run insurance option, he said, "I don't want to restrict myself to one choice. I don't think any of you want to be restricted to one choice."
He said that under the current system, insurance companies are allowed to "cherry-pick" those whom they cover to reduce claims and payouts.
Meanwhile, insurance costs are skyrocketing.
"We have to begin to flatten out that cost curve. It's just unsustainable," he said.
He said under reform no one would be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, everyone would be covered and there would be no lifetime caps.
The problem isn't with America's health-care providers, he said, which are excellent, but with its system of payment.
Various questions addressed a carbon cap-and-trade proposal being debated in Congress.
One questioner asked why "strangle our economy" with emissions limits while in China, pollution continues unchecked.
"We're not going to strangle our economy," he said. "What we're going to do is unleash our economy."
He said the legislation would energize the burgeoning market for green energy and result in new technologies that could be exported to developing countries to revitalize our economy and allow theirs to grow in a sustainable fashion.
He called maintaining the status quo the more "radical" option because it entails simply sitting by to see what consequences arise from climate change.
He was asked whether his support for cap and trade represented a conflict given the position of his wife, Maggie Fox, as head of Al Gore's organization, the Alliance for Climate Protection.
"My wife has her own career," he said.
Being in an area heavily dependent on revenue from natural-gas production, he was careful to emphasize that natural gas will remain a part of the energy mix into the future.
Meanwhile outside, people mingled and strained to hear the talk on the sound system.
Some carried placards, including ones that read "Nuclear Energy is the Perfect Solution," "Jesus Healed Everyone Who Asked," and "You May Like Your Crappy Expensive Insurance. I Want the Choice of a Public Option."
Rebecca Whitehead, no relation to the newest state senator, was sitting in the shade with her baby son, Orin Samulski. She said she favors a cap-and-trade plan.
"Unless it becomes an economic issue, the power lobby will never take it seriously," she said.
Dal Mize said he was there to hear about health care, which he believes should be provided by a local cooperative.
"We need to bring it to a local level operated by maybe the chamber of commerce," he said.
About 2:15 p.m., Udall aides said the senator had to leave for a meeting in Mancos.
After a final question, he stepped out of the courthouse to briefly address the crowd.
"We had a robust discussion," he said, adding that people were civil.
"I've got the best job in the world," he said. "I'm honored you hired me."
Before leaving, he paused to greet and embrace La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter, a Republican.
"Thanks for being here," she said. "The people really need to feel heard."
After he left, people lingered, some engaged in heated discussions.
Paul Sparaco, who had been inside, said he supported Udall but felt "he really didn't take a stand."
He said the format, with written questions, was constricting.
"It really wasn't an honest exchange of ideas and thoughts," he said.
Bill Mikus, who came with his wife, Trudy, from Crawford, accused Udall of restricting the audience.
"It's just sad when people come from so far, and they don't have a venue with room for everyone to hear," said Mikus.
Udall spokeswoman Tara Trujillo said the meeting was planned months ago, before contentious town halls began garnering national coverage. She said postcards with the time and place had already been mailed.
Trudy Mikus, who was inside the meeting, characterized it as "same old, same old."
"There were some really good questions, but I don't think they got answers. There was no rebuttal at all," she said.
While she agreed there were some problems with the current health-care system, she said she opposed a government-run insurance option.
"I want private insurance, and I want choices," she said.
Upon leaving Durango, Udall went to Mancos, were he toured a health clinic to talk about rural health care and the shortage of doctors in rural communities.
firstname.lastname@example.orgHerald Staff Writer Dale Rodebaugh contributed to this report.