U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley spoke with a note of frustration at his latest town hall meeting in Brookings Monday when he addressed hurdles he and other Democrats are trying to overcome in today’s divisive political climate.
He mixed topics of maturity, integrity and principles into his hopes for the upcoming legislative session to address forest management, health care, taxes and veteran issues, all while dealing with a president who has worked to upturn almost everything Merkley’s party has fought for years to obtain, he said.
Along those lines and, being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Merkley quoted from the civil rights leader, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Morale is low in Washington, D.C., particularly at the State and Environmental Protection Administration departments, he told a group of press members before his meeting at Brookings-Harbor High School.
“It’s not in the basement,” he said. “It’s in a cave they’ve carved underneath the basement.”
Merkley said many Republicans are concerned about the president’s comments and behavior, and hopes it doesn’t become the “new normal.”
“We shouldn’t lose our dignity, our graciousness,” he said. “We expect a whole lot more. It affects our influence in the world. I get a strong sense that the world is not looking to U.S. leadership the way it has in the past.”
Merkley, who makes it a point to hold a town hall meeting in every Oregon county every year, also has a tradition of allowing high school students to present the first and last questions of each meeting.
Monday, it was junior Aynika Nelson, who spoke first-hand of her family’s struggle to get by on her mother’s disability check and how, under criteria set by the state, she has fallen through the cracks — too poor to buy health insurance and too “wealthy” to qualify for state programs — for the past seven years.
She didn’t know about the state CHIPs program until recently, she said, her voice cracking, and the Trump administration cut the program’s funding in September.
“I don’t have health care, and access — particularly for dental — is pretty much impossible here,” she said. “No one allows payments; I don’t even qualify for the free dental van.”
Merkley noted nowhere in the developed world is there a country with as complex a medical system as the U.S.
“We have the Oregon Health Plan, we have self-insurance, the exchange,” he said. “And circumstances change, your income changes, you have to reapply. Why can’t this be seamless? There is too much stress in our programs.”
He also encouraged people to vote for Measure 101 on the Jan. 23 ballot, saying if Oregon can’t backfill its Medicaid coffers after federal cuts were made, it won’t be able to obtain as much in federal dollars to help low-income residents.
He plans to introduce a bill that will be a “pathway in the direction” of Medicare for all in the next session.
Fires, DACA, taxes
Merkley expressed hope, too, of getting money for Curry County’s Chetco Bar Fire recovery included in a package to help Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after their disastrous hurricanes last year.
“We have 1.6 million acres approved…through the environmental process and approved for fuel reduction and thinning,” he said. “We just need the money. It’s up in the air, but we’re pushing hard and hoping.”
One audience member repeatedly asked Merkley what he planned to do; Merkley said he encouraged citizens to comment on a U.S. Forest Service salvage logging plan some of the land burned in last summer’s inferno.
Judy Kaplan of Brookings asked him about the chances of the so-called “Dreamers” — those brought to the U.S. illegally as children but whom have grown up as Americans — being deported, to which Merkley expressed regret that a bipartisan agreement went sour last week.
“Tuesday, we were in a good, possible meeting,” Merkley said. “He (Trump) was ready to sign this bipartisan agreement. And Thursday, we were in not-a-good meeting that led to comments that reverberated around the world.”
He noted all Americans come from somewhere else, and many were not caucasian or wealthy.
“I would love to see our leaders convey — not ‘We’re against this group, women, Mexicans’ — but all talking together toward a common benefit,” Merkley said. “That we are one people united and indivisible and are going to work together.”
Others expressed their fear about the new tax codes the administration has enacted.
“We’re very, very scared about the tax codes,” said Brookings resident Lauren Specter. “The wealthy get a huge tax cut and now they’re talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare? Millions of people are like me, and we’re scared. What’s going to happen to us?”
Merkley asked for a show of hands regarding who supported the new tax plan; two people raised their hands, another shouted approval and clapped.
“The changes in the estate taxes, the tax brackets, the pass-throughs for limited liability corporations, the benefits for large companies … it’s $2 trillion going toward the wealthy. I can’t get my head around a trillion dollars — that’s $6,000 for every person in this room going to the wealthiest.”
He said people have “a right to be concerned,” and advocated to repeal and replace programs that don’t benefit families.
A final student
Sophomore Brigid Mitchell, a member of the school’s LGBTQ + Straight Alliance, said members of that group are bullied, have posters in school torn from the walls and are called vulgar names. A friend of hers in the hospital is under supervision after threatening suicide after such abuse, she said.
“It is important our leaders stand up to bullying, abuse and discrimination,” Merkley said. “And we need to start with the diversity of students who should be treated with respect and fairness.”
Citing the upcoming Women’s March Jan. 20, he said he encourages citizens to protest when they feel things aren’t going well, and acknowledged that topics can run the gamut.
“When you come into a group there’s this surge of power,” he said. “Whether it’s equal pay, sexual harassment, health care, rejecting an administration that’s not sympathetic to equal rights of all kinds,” he said. “There is power in a group when so much of the government is about the powerful and privileged. It does matter.
“We need to keep working to reclaim the vision of our nation,” Merkley said in closing. “Strap yourself in; May 2018 will be better than 2017.”