Monday, May 29, 2023

By:  Dakota Castets-Didier

East Oregonian

PENDLETON — Gun regulations, trans rights and the housing market were hot topics at U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall meeting Sunday, May 28, in Pendleton.

About two dozen people attended the afternoon event at the Pendleton Convention Center. Merkley began by thanking those in attendance for joining the meeting on Memorial Day weekend and took time to recognize Pendleton’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Chapter 922 for its volunteer service to the community.

“Thank you to those who have stood up for us, we need to stand for you,” Merkley said. “That includes ensuring veterans benefits those who’ve served have earned are effectively delivered.”

The town hall used a random process to select audience members to ask question. Among the first was Fred Pearson, who described himself as a lifelong resident of Eastern Oregon, a veteran and a gun owner.

“Citizens live in fear of going out in public, or children being slaughtered in their classrooms,” he said. “You’ve supported background checks, red flag laws and stopping the sale of assault rifle platforms. The majority of the entire country supports some variation of these changes, including gun owners. Why aren’t you leading the charge to get these things put in place?”

Merkley pointed out he had been the only statewide official to have supported Measure 114, which mandated an expansion of background checks to purchase firearms, but agreed that more should be done.

“I come from rural Oregon, and my world, that world, my whole extended family, it’s a world in which there’s hunting, there’s target practice, there’s enjoying going to the gun range, there is gun collecting,” Merkley said. “All of those things are completely compatible to me with these safety measures.”

Dysen Wilson, a lifelong resident of Umatilla County and a student at Blue Mountain Community College, raised concerns about a nationwide stigma against trans rights and voiced displeasure over anti-abortion legislation.

“I believe it is incredibly important for a woman and her doctor and whoever else she wants to consult, whether her partner, her pastor, whoever, but the folks that don’t belong in the room is the U.S. government,” Merkley responded. “in a number of my town halls, folks have said, ‘Senator, do you really believe that a trans female teenager should be able to compete in sports?’ My answer is yes.”

Colleges and professional sports federations would work out their own guidelines on how to do this, Merkley said. The highest suicide rate amongst children is among trans children, he added, and it is his hope if those children could find meaning in sports, it could empower them.

“Let’s support them,” the senator said. “Let’s make their lives a little bit easier in grade school and high school, that’s my feeling.”

As the town hall hour came to a close, Maria Duron, an at-large member of Hermiston City Council, thanked Merkley for what she said were his efforts to improve education and the situation for homeless individuals in Oregon.

“Prices are going up, a lot of people cannot afford to live in decent apartments,” Duron said. “We need to find ways to get more available and affordable housing in our area.”

The key to altering the housing market, Merkley responded, would be to find ways to remove hedge fund money from the family housing market, which he explained was one of his legislative focuses.

“It is destroying the middle class,” he said. “Another challenge is in tourist areas, which some of these rural areas are, is Airbnb, taking homes off the market. Some jurisdictions are limiting that, banning it or capping it. You’ve got that, and hedge funds buying up property across the country. It’s great for those fortunate enough to own property, but for those who don’t, it’s like, dream on. We have to fix that.”

Merkley on Greater IdahoThe Pendleton town hall wrapped up Merkley’s latest swing through Eastern Oregon after similar events May 27 in Malhuer County, Baker County and Union County and May 28 in Wallowa County.

At the Union County town hall in La Grande, Merkley spoke to the Greater Idaho movement, which seeks to move Idaho’s boundary west to envelope some Eastern and Central Oregon counties.

“There are a whole set of barriers that would make the process very difficult,” he said.

Under the U.S. Constitution, to redraw borders, states that are affected must pass a law saying they want the change. Then, the proposed change would have to pass through the United States House and Senate and be signed by the president.

The senator noted the Oregon Legislature would have to decide which parts of the state would join Idaho if Greater Idaho were to be created.

“I would not want to see the state carved up. I love every part of it,” Merkley said, adding the Greater Idaho movement reflects a divide between Western and Eastern Oregon that needs to be addressed. The gulf, the senator said, stems in part from a sense that there are different types of communities around the state. Merkley said those who are elected to lead the state need to understand the differences and address them.

Merkley credited many Oregon leaders with trying to bridge the gulf. He pointed out he and fellow Democrat Ron Wyden, Oregon’s senior U.S. Senator, hold town halls in all 36 of Oregon’s counties annually and he applauded new Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek for pledging to visit every county in the state during her first year in office.

Since 2020, pro-Greater Idaho organizers have placed ballot measures in counties across the state. Eleven counties, including Morrow County, have approved ballot measures requiring county commissioners to meet regularly to consider the move. A measure in Wallowa County looks like it will pass, bringing the total to 12 counties.

— The Observer reporter Dick Mason contributed to this article.