A conversation with Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley

Last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) held a town hall meeting at the Senior Center in St. Helens.

Despite the snow, several citizens came out to voice their concerns and ask Merkley their questions, which largely centered on gun control in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

Before the town hall, Merkley took some time to stop in at The Chronicle offices to discuss the issues that affect us on a local level.

To begin with, what is the most important thing that your constituents need to know about you?

Well, I think the key thing is that I’m fighting for working Americans. I come from a mill family. We have had a struggle in America between government by and for, the powerful and the privileged, and the vision of our constitution, which is government for and by the people. You can see that battle playing out over the course of this last year.

When you think about the four fundamentals for a family to thrive, it’s affordable housing, a good paying job, healthcare and education, and those have gotten a very short shrift. We just had a tax bill give a trillion and a half dollars mostly to the wealthiest Americans.

That’s a lot of resources off the table that could have done a lot of good across this country. The way I figure, the privileged and powerful have plenty of clout already. They don’t need me, but ordinary working families do. 

Our largest employer in Columbia County is a mental health agency. We recently covered a story in which two our agencies were struggling to share state-mandated funds. In doing research for the story, we discovered that Oregon often ranks 51st in access to mental health care and addiction treatment. What would you do to help alleviate these situations? Where is the flaw?

I’ve been advocating for the federal government to provide far more funds on mental health and drug addiction. While I didn’t support the overall bill that just passed, it did include the opioid addiction funds that I’d been fighting for. It’s an epidemic that we need to take on through a variety of ways. 

Prevention on the front end, the medical community on how the prescribe, the education of patients to understand that, “Well, if we give you these ten medicines we want you to take every pill, but we give you this bottle and it’s the reverse. Take as few as you possibly can.” It’s an education that often doesn’t happen and by the time people finish a bottle, they can be addicted. Then it’s horrifically difficult to end that. 

When I was in the state legislature, we passed mental health parity, so it could be on the same footing as other medical maladies, but it still hasn’t been enough. You can see, with our homeless population, you have people suffering with addiction, people suffering with mental illness, and economic refugees and we have to take on all three. 

Opioids have been declared a national emergency, and Trump convened a council to study the problem. Are they doing what needs to be done? What aren’t they doing that they should be?

I held a series of meetings here with health care professionals on opioids, a series of roundtables in different parts of the state. One thing, I was talking to a mayor, and I was telling her about my daughter getting her wisdom teeth out and getting a bottle of opioid pills. 

When I talked to her, I said, “These pills are different than other pills, you want to take as few as you possibly care. There’s a real risk of addiction with this.” And teenage daughters don’t always think their dads know much. She said, “Oh, what, dad? Now you’re a doctor? Why wouldn’t the dentist tell me this?” I said, “Great point. That’s exactly one of the problems that we’re facing.” 

I’m telling the mayor this and she says, “Well, senator, you didn’t know this but my son had a football injury. He got a bottle of opioids to treat the pain, became addicted. Died of a heroine overdose.” We have more people dying of overdoses in America than we have people dying of car accidents. It’s the equivalent to a Vietnam War. Every single year over 50,000 people die. We’ve got to change the practices from start to bottom. 

I just was looking at map earlier today of Oregon and it was showing the number of pills prescribed per capita in different parts of the state. When I started over in Tillamook County, that’s one of the hotspots. That’s one of the highest pills per capita. 

Maybe because there’s a lot more injuries from the blue collar working world, maybe because in a more rural area, the doctors know it’s harder to get prescription refills so they give more pills initially. Whatever it is, we’ve got to have an extensive conversation. Sure, treatment on the back end is really important, we need to fund that. But, if you can possibly prevent it on the front end, it’s worlds better.

So, you think primarily we need to change the conversation in doctor’s offices about how we prescribe?

On the front end, absolutely. Absolutely. Because what happens is an extraordinary number of the heroin deaths are beginning with opioid prescriptions for actual injuries. We’re just using it a lot more than other pain medicines that we used in the past, and the risk is high. The profits are high for prescribing it, so the drug industry is pushing opioids, but I think we have to be extremely careful. 

One of the questions has been, “Well, why not just prescribe just a couple of days?” What doctors have described is they are rated on their pain management and that they feel like they have to give more than three or four. Let’s say the bell curve of some people need it for two weeks? Well, they’re going to give everybody two weeks worth of pills, rather than a few days and have people refill it. 

But for urban areas, it makes much more sense to give a few days and have people refill it and have a lot of education on it and say, “Maybe on this case, a much less addictive pill can work.” I’ve had folks say after they took their wisdom teeth out, they decided they were so scared of opioids that they took Advil. And they got through it. It wasn’t that comfortable but they got through it without the risk of addiction. 

The other thing that’s happening is we have this synthetic heroin: Fentanyl. And Fentanyl is getting mixed in. So, when people go, because heroin is cheaper than getting opioid pills, so they become a heroin addict. But now the heroine is tainted with Fentanyl and it’s a hundred times more powerful, so they OD. There’s people who have OD’d on heroin the very first time that they’ve taken it. In the illegal drug market, there’s no consistency for what you’re buying.

I know you are a proponent of better funding for our rural schools. We are told in our district that we have two counselors in our high school where, ideally, we should have four. What needs to happen to get this funding to our rural schools where it is needed? 

This is a federal question, but it’s also a state question. Our state went through the process of essentially freezing our property taxes, which lead to the state picking up the K12 responsibility, which also lead to the state doing a state funding formula. And that funding formula tries to account for the different stresses. You have more children of a second language get a few more dollars. 

If you’re a rural school and you have to driver further between districts and you have more administrative overhead, you get more dollars. There’s no perfect way to do the formula, but that formula is the key to how dollars are distributed and once they’re in the school district, the school board decides how to spend them, whether it’s on teachers, counselors, repairing the infrastructure, so and so forth. But this is where I think we’re really failing our kids in our public schools. 

I’m in a blue collar neighborhood. I went to school there from third grade through high school. My kids went to the same school system, so I think about what’s happened in those 40 years between when I went and when my son and daughter went. What I see is that, when I went, the class sizes were a lot smaller. And the extra-curricular activities were free. My dad being a mechanic, I may not have done baseball and basketball, band and everything else that were part of something that kept me interested in school. 

We see this all the time now. Now the kids have to pay to participate and it’s very hard to go to a parent when they’re struggling to pay the rent and ask for funds to participate in a sport or a speech team or a constitution team. Now, the high school doesn’t even have a constitution team. I told my kids to consider being apart of debate and speaking because I think it’s just good life experience.

They’re like, “Dad, the school doesn’t have a debate and speaking team.” Well, they had it when I was there. Also, in terms of, people talk a lot about career technical education, CTE, but there’s a lot of job opportunities in the electrical world, the sheet-metal world, and so forth, the hands-on construction side … a lot of folks gain interest in that, working with tools, through shop classes.

There are some schools now that have wonderful shop classes that are way sophisticated. I had an act in the pass that I’ll be reintroducing called “The Build Act” that’s about funding, getting shop classes back in our schools. “No child left behind” really left behind a lot of our diversity of classes that need to be part of an opportunity for kids.

So, here’s the thing … the federal government could do a lot more to help. This is where you look at that trillion and a half dollars that we just took off the table. So, if there was a trillion dollars split up between the 50 states for education, and we’re one percent of the national population crudely, pretty close to it … well, out of that, that would be $10 billion. 

That could help our schools a whole lot in Oregon, just for example. Realize, in the big picture, if you look at what’s going on in other developed countries, and by that I’m including Canada and Europe and Australia, we are falling behind on the fundamentals of education, healthcare and infrastructure.

Do you think it is a matter of … are our citizens disengaged? Do you think if we put more pressure on the government and demanded some of these things that we would see action faster? Or is that naive? 

Okay, so now you’re really getting me into the big vision problems of America. A really big problem we have is Citizens United. That court decision allowed unlimited funds to be put into elections. And who has the funds for elections? The rich have the funds. And what kind of laws do they want? They want laws that decrease the taxes so they don’t have to pay.

If their company runs a training program, they’d rather have that funded by the public at the community college. They’re going to make rules that work really well for enhancing the wealth of those who already have wealth, and it’s the opposite of the foundation of the vision of our country which was distributed power. Jefferson really laid this out and said you won’t have decisions that reflect the will of the people unless the power is distributed throughout the people. Citizens United turns that on its head. 

What I really saw, for example in 2014, the best example I have is the Koch brothers. The Koch brothers decided to fund and try to take over the US senate, and they funded a massive amount in Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado and Alaska. All those seats went from blue to red and Mitch McConnell became majority leader and the Koch brothers have controlled the senate ever since. Now, they also came to Oregon. 

I am the only person in the country to put up an ad against the Koch brothers. They use all these front groups like Generation Opportunity and Freedom Partners and so forth. They sound wonderful. And I’m like, if I’m going to lose because of this outside group running all of these front ads, I’m going to lose swinging. I’m going to go down swinging. And my team was like, “Are you crazy? Do not take on … you realize they can put in five million, they can put in $50 million. Unlimited sums. That’s why nobody else does this, Jeff.”

I said, “I don’t care.” So, I had to write the ad … (laughs).

You know, being in the paper business, the old adage, “Don’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Well, this is like tankers of ink. But, I’ll tell you what happened, after a month they pulled out of Oregon. They did not like being called out.

Harry Reid called three other senators who were running and said, “You should do what Merkley’s doing. Take them on.” As Harry said to me, “None of them did and they all lost.” I’m not saying they lost because they didn’t take them on, but in retrospect, it didn’t help them to stay out of the fight. 

Another example of what happened was in 2016 when Antonin Scalia died of a heart attack. Within a couple hours, Mitch McConnell came to the floor and said there will be no debate or no vote on anyone that Obama nominates. He said it’s an election year, we should be politics free, this is the American tradition. No. Never happened before. 

15 times before we’ve had a vacancy during an election year on the Supreme Court and always the senate debated, always they voted. They didn’t always confirm, they turned down four of the 15, but they always debated and always voted.

The Koch brothers went to Mitch, I’m not saying they walked into the room, but essentially what happened was they said, “Look, we don’t want to risk Citizens United get overturned. You can’t let anybody Obama nominates get a vote. We’ve got a 5-4 vote and we don’t want to lose 4-5.”

That really is such a pivot point for America and we’re going to have to work really hard to reclaim a government that has that “we the people” vision. So, why are we struggling compared to other democracies?

Other democracies do not let this kind of concentrated money into their campaigns. That’s the big difference. If they can hide behind front groups, they’re going to own this government forever. You’ve got to tear that façade away. 

In light of what happened in Florida, I have to ask about gun control. Is it business as usual in the senate right now in upholding the status quo? How is it going and what is your stance on the issue? 

My first instinct is that it’s very unlikely the republican majority will step forward, but maybe I’ll be wrong. The president came out a few hours ago and said that he wants to support getting rid of bump stocks and other devices that can convert semi-automatics to machine guns. He used the term “machine guns” instead of fully automatic. 

And he’s supporting background checks. You know, our background check system doesn’t work very well. There’s a lot of information that doesn’t go into it. Oregon has taken a step on its own on gun shows and craigslist, the person-to-person sales, and I think the house voted maybe on Friday to expand domestic violence protections. 

I think those children made an impact. Those children standing up there and saying words like, “It’s BS.” Thirty mass shootings have happened since January 1st with four or more people getting shot. It’s not quite every day, but it’s close to it. Maybe the equivalent of once every weekday, that’s about where we’re at.

They’re raising legitimate questions. Why should a child be able to buy an AR-15? I think federally you have to be 21 to buy a handgun. And why do we have these magazines that hold 100 bullets? It’s good for war. That’s a war weapon. So, I think it’s an important conversation to have.

This is not about the 2nd Amendment. We have plenty of protection for folks to be able to hold guns because they are a gun collector, because they love hunting, because they love target practice, because they want it for protection … I just think a machine gun is an inappropriate weapon in that regard because they’re really only good for killing people. 

Essentially those individuals who are unstable, or who have committed felonies, or are stalking, or who have beaten up their spouses, their boyfriends or girlfriends … I think you forgo the privilege at that point, and that’s what we’ve done with the background check system and I’d like to see that extended throughout the country.

We’ll see. Even if the president comes out, I don’t know that Mitch McConnell will raise it. Realize, normally, in the old senate, you could make an issue be confronted by offering an amendment on any bill. Last year, in 2017, outside of the Reconciliation Bill, which has a different set of rules, not a single democratic amendment was allowed on the bill. It works like this: This is the bill being discussed and this is the waiting line for amendments. In the past, the waiting line was kept open.

As soon as one amendment’s done, the next person jumps in and gets the attention of the chair and gets their amendment. Now, what Mitch McConnell does, is he says, “Here’s my amendment, I’m taking the privilege of leadership to put the first amendment in place, and an amendment to the amendment, so now nobody else can get in line. Then, when he wants to, he pulls these down and immediately puts up what he wants considered. So, the democrats are over here going, “How do we get in line?”

We can’t. And republicans complained about Harry Reid doing that, but by comparison? There is no comparison. Zero amendments. That’s never happened in US history, but it happened last year. 

We’re facing a housing shortage in Columbia County. Can the federal government take meaningful action regarding housing and homelessness in Oregon?

Yes, it could, but the president’s budget for fiscal year ’19 which just came out last week has a massive cut to support for affordable housing. It’s going the wrong direction. If we go back four decades, middle workers incomes have been flat, inflation adjusted and sometimes declining. But the cost of buying a home or renting a home, both of them have gone up.

So, before, a family with an ordinary working salary could say, “Yeah, I can be a home owner” and that’s a major driver of middle class wealth. Now, it’s like, “How the heck am I going to be able to buy this thing?” I mean, I look at my neighborhood – my blue-collar neighborhood and houses now are costing $300,000. Are you kidding me? 

I mean, when the wages of people who are working and earning $30,000, that’s like the equivalent of ten year’s savings. It’s incredible. When I came back to Oregon in ’91, I was head of Habitat for Humanity and then I developed affordable housing. I did some apartment complexes when I was developing for a non-profit. I did the first light rail development on the east side of Portland, close to 122nd on the Gresham side. 40 units, basically, and I was so frustrated how much it cost me to develop that. It cost $80,000 a unit. That’s incredibly expensive. 

Well now, in the affordable housing community, they’re figuring it’s going to cost them $250,000 per unit to develop a new affordable house or apartment. For a two bedroom apartment … $250,000.

Why has that jumped so high?

Well, that is an excellent question. I’ve been out of the housing world but I’m being told a variety of things. One is that the requirements have been raised for the designs, so the larger developments are expected to be lead developments, which cost more. Land is more expensive, so that helps drive it up.

Those are the two things I’ve heard, and I’m not really a 100-percent sure. I’d love to see the breakdown of the financial planning document per complex and compare it to mine. Of course, a substantial amount of time has passed. I developed that complex back in 1996, so, here we are 20 years later … but still, from $80,000 to $250,000? 

That is a big, big change. The rent that you would have to charge, the amount of subsidy that has to go into that … so, we have to take on affordable housing with a lot of strategies. It can’t just be building two bedrooms. We have to have SROs, single room occupancies.

When I first raised the idea of SROs, people in the housing community said, “Oh, that’s warehousing people.” I said, wait a minute – I lived in an SRO in New York City. I had my room; I had the bathroom down the hall. My room had a small bed, a small closet, a small table and a modest window, but it was private.

You don’t need that much space to sleep in. You don’t need that big of a bedroom. I can tell you exactly how big it was, because I measured, it was 7 feet by 11 feet. But, here’s the thing, in New York City, I paid $50 a week for that room. I was being paid $800 a month and I could live in New York City, in Manhattan, and I still had enough money to live in.

So we have to look at a variety of strategies, because the homeless situation, people living in the streets, it’s just unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for their quality of life and it’s unacceptable for the community’s quality, as well. 

In closing, what are the top three issues you believe we need to be tackling now?

One, I’d say, is foundations for family … those four things I mentioned. I know that’s kind of cheating.

The second is we have got to take on climate change, which I refer to as “climate chaos.” We saw this last year, in the south it was the hurricanes, here it was the fires. The cost to us is enormous. You may not see it from year to year, but we’re just at the beginning of this upward temperature curve. 

The third is the issue of opportunity for all. I think about my town halls, we start with the pledge of allegiance and we say, “One nation under God, indivisible …” Why do we say indivisible? It’s a really American concept that we come from every corner of the globe but we’re not going to be divided against each other.

We’re going to be together, taking the strength from the various backgrounds that we carry and the various cultures that we come from and build this great nation together. The president is driving the opposite.

He is driving like Divider-In-Chief, “I’m going to attack Haitian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, women Americans, Muslim Americans … individuals with disabilities Americans.” No. We have to change that. We have to get back to seeing the opportunity to work together to build a stronger country rather than being set as one group against the other. 

That’s the third. I include in that the issue of any discrimination against the LGBT community and getting legal status for the Dreamers back.