The benches lining the middle of the South Albany High School cafeteria filled up slowly over the course of an hour on Saturday morning with mothers in red shirts demanding action on gun control, education lobbyists, young families and students all vying for the chance at having their ticket called.
Everyone who entered the building got a ticket but only a handful got lucky.
It’s standard procedure at U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley’s town halls. Everyone gets a ticket and if their number is called, they can ask a question. On Saturday, the Oregon senator held his 20th town hall of the year, 416th overall and questions did not stray from the standards: Is climate change real? What’s responsible for gun violence— the guns or the shooters? China. War. Corruption.
But South Albany High School junior Rena Edwards brought up another topic.
What did Merkley plan to do about the opioid crisis that has effected both of her parents, thousands of others and the nation itself?
It was a stark reminder that regardless of cable chatter, social media wars and large campaign promises, residents have serious challenges and rarely get face time with their representatives to share them.
For just over an hour, Merkley spoke on several issues including the four he considers core issues–housing, education, fair wages and health care — and took questions from the audience of 250.
“It’s going take conversations with the medical community,” Merkley said, citing the documented over-prescription of the drug.
He told the crowd that his daughter had her wisdom tooth removed and came home with a bottle of the pills. When he suggested she not adhere to the belief that a prescription be taken to completion, she responded, “If they’re dangerous, why wouldn’t the dentist tell me?”
“I was having a conversation with a mayor in Oregon who said her son was given a prescription after he injured his shoulder,” Merkley said. “Now he’s dead.”
Merkley said he thinks that many of the individuals affected by the opioid crisis were introduced to the drug through an initial prescription and that aside from reeling in those doctor’s orders, more investment in treatment programs was needed.
In answering a question about how the country can successfully cope with the changing climate and still remain supportive of industry, Merkley in turn asked a question of his own: Can everyone take in a deep breath for three seconds and hold it?
“The air you just held in your lungs is different from the air you breathed when you were born,” he said as the rush of air returned to the room three seconds later. “There’s 33% more carbon in it than when I was born and it’s going to double in my lifetime.”
He said he preferred the term climate chaos to climate change because of the affects he saw locally. Beetles for example, didn’t die off in the same way they used to because it stayed warmer longer and the change in weather, he said, affected agriculture and industry.
“It’s a long way to the next star and we’re not going to make it there in time,” he said, noting that he has called for a rapid reduction in dependence of fossil fuels.
Fellow Oregonian Nick Kristoff and his wife Sheryl WuDunn recently wrote a book on the challenges facing rural communities in Oregon and around the country, Merkley said. In it, they detail the evolution of a glove factory. It eventually closed because the gloves were cheaper to make in China and the environmental laws much looser.
Merkley said he didn’t agree with the trading of tariffs hailed by the Trump administration as the solution to the country’s complicated financial relationship with China.
“What can we do about Mitch McConnell?”
The question about the Senate Majority Leader set off approximately 20 minutes of discussion on civics, the current state of the federal government and community relationships with frustration at the center.
Merkley told the crowd that in his early career in politics, he often had bipartisan meetings and during sessions representatives would sit beside members of the opposite party.
“I was unprepared for Mitch McConnell’s maximum polarization strategy,” he said.
“When he said his top goal was to make sure Barack Obama did not get a second term that meant that when there were things we agreed on around housing, jobs, education, he wouldn’t allow it because it would be seen as a victory for President Obama. We can’t do that,” he said, citing Alexander Hamilton’s belief against super majorities.
“If the minority is always obstructing the majority, intentionally, then we’re always going to be hurting each other,” he said.
Cap and trade
The Oregon Legislature currently is debating Senate Bill 1530, which would decrease the state’s greenhouse emissions. Merkley does not serve in the state Legislature and has no hand in arguing or voting on the bill. However, when the question was raised, he referred the crowd to a previous effort to decrease sulfur through cap and trade to address acid rain.
“The results were better than predicted,” he said. “My sense is this — its goal overall is to create a partnership with the type of cap and trade they have in California and it’s worked pretty well in California.”
Teresa Hess came to the town hall wanting to walk away with one thing: a to-do list.
“Tell us what to do,” she said, citing her frustration over the continual back and forth.
Merkley stressed the bipartisan nature of the event.
“If you’re frustrated, if you’re concerned,” he said, “start getting your neighbors into your kitchens to talk about the issues. Get involved in elections. The most effective tool is knocking on doors.”