Merkley town hall draws anxious crowd

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley walked into the Ridgeview High School gym Saturday to a standing ovation from hundreds of anxious local citizens who brought a long list of questions about President Donald Trump and his administration.

Merkley, a Democrat from Portland, spoke bluntly at the afternoon town hall meeting, raising his own concerns with the president.

“When you go into the details of his statements, it’s not at all clear what he has in mind,” Merkley said, answering a question about immigration.

The Redmond high school was the third town hall of the day for Merkley. He also made stops Saturday at the Madras Performing Arts Center and Crook County High School in Prineville.

Before taking questions at the Redmond town hall, Merkley briefly updated the crowd on his work in Washington, D.C. He said the three major issues facing Congress after its break are the budget, health care and the potential appointment of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch.

“That’s a lot, and then there’s all the other issues,” Merkley said. “There’s infrastructure. There’s housing. There’s public education. There is so much.”

The loudest applause from the vastly Democratic audience in Redmond came after Merkley denounced Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist in the Trump administration.

“I was shocked that Steve Bannon was brought on as his strategic adviser,” Merkley said. “Steve Bannon has no appropriate role being in the White House.”

Redmond resident Steve Schaffer was pleased to have the chance to hear about national issues from a U.S. Senator. Schaffer, 66, stood outside the Redmond gym before the town hall with a sign that read, “Not my tweeting bird,” making fun of President Trump’s habit of posting comments on Twitter.

The most important issue for Schaffer is health care.

“It’s just the idea that we should join the rest of the industrialized world and have universal health care, a single-payer system,” he said before Merkley arrived.

Beyond all the national topics discussed Saturday, some in the audience asked about the use of public lands in Oregon and public education.

Travis Overley, a social studies teacher at Summit High School in Bend, came to the town hall with a group of other local teachers, who are all worried about the future of public education.

“I strongly believe education is one of the most important components of our democracy,” Overley said. “We are seeing the results right now with the devaluation of education.”

Overley asked Merkley how educators can protect the state from changing national education policies that could hinder public schools.

Merkley assured the crowd that protecting public schools is a priority for him. He described how his father would tell him in grade school that if he studied hard, he could accomplish what he wanted. The beauty of a public education, Merkley said, is that children from all walks of life have the same opportunity to learn.

“Isn’t that the foundation of the American dream?” Merkley said.