Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley wrapped up his annual tour of every county in the state with the last of 36 town hall events Aug. 9 at Newberg High School.
Like elsewhere in the state, the Democrat found that people had a lot of questions to ask and a lot to say about the state of affairs in the country, as about 200 people filled Drea Ferguson Auditorium to hear him speak.
“It was a wonderful community gathering,” Merkley said. “I think people are sharing a lot of concerns about the direction of the country right now and I enjoy hearing from them. I also think it’s good for me when people ask questions for me to be able to explain where I’m coming from, so it’s a type of dialogue we need a lot more of in the United States.”
If the big cheers and a sea of green “I agree” signs that followed many of his comments are any indication, a strong majority of the crowd was on board with Merkley and his take on the state of the nation.
“It was the home crowd, by and large,” Newberg resident Brian Bowman said. “Generally I tend to agree with most of his points. I figured it was a good chance and it was close by.”
The event was kicked off with a short introduction by Yamhill County Commissioner Rick Olson and a brief recognition for the Newberg FISH food bank program.
Merkley kicked things off in earnest by summarizing his perspective on the health care debate and telling the crowd how he watched John McCain cast the deciding vote that defeated the Republican health care bill in the Senate.
“Now we have a chance to have a bipartisan conversation in the health committee, which is where is should have been to begin with,” Merkley said. “So this is a bright opportunity.”
He quickly added that the United States should “not ever threaten first use of nuclear weapons” in reference to President Trump’s rhetoric with North Korea before giving way to questions from the audience.
With the event being hosted by the high school, students were chosen to ask the first and last questions of the session. Junior James Busch opened the question-and-answer session by asking what could be done at the state and national level to better fund public schools.
Merkley said the education he received is quite different than the one his own son is receiving and noted that a public education can’t be the foundation for success that it has been in the past if classrooms are overcrowded and all activities require fees that some families can’t afford.
“I would like to see us not be talking about the president’s proposal of putting $50 billion more into our defense budget but how about $50 into our education enterprise?” Merkley said, prompiting a big cheer.
In responding to a question about the chances that Trump will finish his first term, Merkley summarized the two options for removing him from office and reminded the crowd that when Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment it was a long and drawn out process that only concluded when Nixon realized he would lose his trial in the Senate and preemptively resigned.
“I will tell you this: I pushed hard for us to have a special prosecutor,” Merkley said of former FBI director Robert Mueller. “I am very glad we have one. I think it’s so important that we get to the bottom of if there has been any cooperation, any coordination with an adversary to undermine the integrity of U.S. elections. To me, that’s treasonous conduct and needs to be pursued to the full extent of the law.”
Merkley also told a McMinnville science teacher concerned about the degradation of trust in science nationally that the nation must act without delay in order to fight climate change, going so far as to say the U.S. needs to start thinking “in terms of a complete end to the burning of fossil fuels.”
“We have to own this issue at the grassroots level so that we can do more action than the federal government,” Merkley said, “but also build the foundation to re-elect leaders to the Senate and House so that we can get the federal government back in the game in leadership and partnership with the world once again.”
Due to a bit of a mix-up in how participants were selected to ask questions, Merkley answered a total of eight questions and closed the evening by issuing a warning about the danger of money in politics.
He pointed to the Koch brothers’ efforts to swing congressional races and the resulting “packing” of the Supreme Court that occurred when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell set a “terrible precedent” by not even allowing debate, let alone a vote, on President Obama’s nominee simply because it was an election year.
“Every time in the future this happens, then future majority leaders will be tempted to do the same thing, not confirm a presidential nominee because they’re from the wrong party,” Merkley said.
There was some frustration among participants that more time wasn’t provided to ask questions, but many left satisfied, including NHS junior Alex Jaczko, who asked Merkley how he would create more entry-level jobs.
“The one thing I really like about Sen. Merkley is that he seems like a normal person just like the rest of us,” Jaczko said. “You see senators or politicians on TV and I don’t know if they think it about themselves, but it feels like maybe they’re above us. He just feels like he’s talking to us like a friend hanging out and I think that’s really special about him.”