Merkley wows Corvallis crowd: Hundreds turn out for senator’s town hall

It was a love fest Monday afternoon for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in Corvallis.

Merkley, Oregon’s junior senator, stopped for a town hall at the Corvallis High School theater and wowed a crowd of more than 400 constituents, who applauded him repeatedly and gave him standing ovations at the beginning and end of his appearance.

It was the 32nd town hall this year for Merkley, the son of a Myrtle Creek millwright, who was elected to the state Legislature in 1998 and the U.S. Senate in 2008. Merkley was re-elected in 2014 with a 16-point margin against Monica Wehby, but the gap was 31 points, 62 percent to 31 percent, in Benton County.

Merkley spoke Monday evening in Albany as well at the Russell Tripp Performance Center at Linn-Benton Community College. Between the two town halls, he spoke with the editorial board at the Albany Democrat-Herald. 

In Corvallis, Merkley, dressed casually in a long-sleeve shirt, blue jeans and boots, spent the majority of his 20 minutes of prepared remarks on health care, an issue that brought dozens of T-shirt wearing and sign-waving constituents to the town hall.

Merkley thanked Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, for his July 28 vote that killed Republican plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and also praised plans by a pair of senators, Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Patty Murray, to hold hearings on health care.

“It should have happened in January,” Merkley said, “but at least it happened.”

Merkley noted that he is against major drug companies working to shut down generic drug makers who compete with them and he advocates reducing the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 55.

“There is so much stress over health care,” Merkley said. “How about if we have a seamless system of health care and that by just getting born in America you will receive decent heath care?”

The audience responded with strong applause.

On other topics, both during his speech and in the 40-minute question-and-answer session that followed, Merkley:

• Said he “won’t support tax reform that is about higher deficits and more giveaways to the wealthy.”

• Indicated Senate Democrats will hold twice-weekly pro forma sessions during the August recess to prevent President Donald Trump from making any recess appointments.

• Said he wants to save federal research funds for programs such as the cross-laminated timber breakthrough that Oregon State University College of Forestry scientists are working on.

• Expressed concerns that a miscalculation in how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program could lead to war and added that policymakers need to “deal with the reality of the situation” by letting North Korea keep its nuclear material but persuading the government to quit testing missiles and warheads.

• Said that good health care, good education and good jobs should be the three things Democrats focus on to attract middle-class voters, adding that college “should not be such a financial gantlet” and that “students should leave college debt-free.”

Merkley also noted the challenge of consensus-building in a media environment that is so partisan.

“We’re living in two different media worlds, and there is a vast difference in the reporting on national issues,” Merkley said. “That difference is making problem-solving very difficult.”

In one of the few lighthearted moments of a rather serious session, Merkley noted that he had seen a study indicating that when parents are looking at the types of individuals their children might marry they are more concerned these days about their political affiliation than their religious ties.

Merkley opened the session by honoring members of Linn Benton Food Share and presenting them with a flag that was flown at the U.S. Capitol. Merkley, who worked for Habitat for Humanity in the early 1990s, noted the “challenge of hunger” in Oregon and urged the audience to continue to fight for food stamps, school food programs and food banks.

In the interview with the Democrat-Herald editorial board on Monday afternoon, Merkley said that he has worked to get language in the Senate appropriations bill to protect federal research laboratories such as the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany and the Oregon State University wave lab.

“Not all of those are guaranteed to make it through,” he added.

The labs, Merkley noted, are in both Democrat and Republican areas, however, so there is support from both parties, which will be key. 

On the topic of sanctuary cities, Merkley spoke out against using local law enforcement as agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying that it will contribute to a distrust of police. When residents don’t report incidents because they’re worried about being deported, that will encourage crime, he added.

Merkley told the DH editorial board that he didn’t think that legalized marijuana would be a high priority for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and he encouraged the federal government to tackle organized crime, rather than businesses and residents operating legally under state laws.

Providing a banking system, Merkley added, actually would deter organized crime in the marijuana industry.

On the constant upheaval in Washington, D.C., Merkley said he believes new Chief of Staff John Kelly should bring order to the presidential administration. He added that Trump’s daily drama is an enormous distraction from problem-solving. 

“We should absolutely put problem-solving ahead of politics, but it’s getting harder,” Merkley said.