Linus Pauling Middle School was unusually busy for a Sunday afternoon, as more than 200 people turned out for a town hall meeting with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.
Several people stood in the back of the audience holding signs with messages ranging from "Yes on 66/67" to "No socialism," but the audience was orderly and respectful throughout the meeting, which was taped by CSPAN.
Before taking questions from the audience, Wyden recognized Oregon State University professor Norm Johnson for his help with Wyden's bill to manage forests in eastern Oregon.
The Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act, worked out in agreement with conservation and timber groups, promotes thinning for forest health and timber while protecting old growth.
"Because of Norm's great work, we're going to take that east side agreement over to the west side (of Oregon)," Wyden said.
Then it was time to open the floor to questions, which Wyden, a Democrat, called a chance to "practice pure, unfiltered democracy."
There was, however, one caveat: The opportunity to ask a question was determined by lottery.
Most who got the chance to speak wanted to talk health care.
After one woman suggested members of Congress to forgo their health care and go out and try to buy insurance, Wyden made her a promise.
He's pushing for equal care for all, but, he said, "if it doesn't happen, I pledge to you this afternoon that I will join personally whatever system applies to the rest of the country."
Wyden repeatedly voiced his commitment to health care choice, including the use of vouchers that would allow workers to take money their employer contributes to insurance and use it to choose their own plan.
In response to a question from local health care activist Betty Johnson, Wyden said he supported an amendment that would allow any state that can prove it meets the general requirements of the bill the freedom to provide other options, such as a single-payer plan.
He criticized Medicare, saying it "rewards inefficiency" by paying reimbursements to providers based on volume instead of quality. States like Oregon that hold costs down, he said, are essentially discriminated against.
Wyden emphasized that while the health care bill has flaws, "it's a start."
Jeff Limon, chair of the Benton County Republicans, wanted to know why Congress was being "so secretive" about health care debates, a question that drew applause.
Wyden said he fought for "a full-fledged conference between the House and the Senate," but didn't get it. Town hall meetings, he said, were a way to promote transparency in the process within Oregon.
Health care dominated the conversation, but a few other topics eventually came up, including employment.
Job creation is the top priority for 2010, Wyden said, and "green" jobs need to be a focus within that priority.
"If we don't get serious about renewable energy, the Chinese are just going to rush to this market," he said. "This is a chance to create good-paying jobs all across the state."
In the short term, transportation funding through bonds will allow cities to finance projects.
"That will be a shot in the arm for this area," he said.
Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson asked when citizens could expect to see "meaningful" immigration reform.
Wyden said he supports strengthening border controls and enforcing current laws, including penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
As for people already in the country, he wants a designated time period when people could be put on the bottom of the citizenship line after they voluntarily came forward and paid a fine, proved they haven't broken other laws, and mastered English. He said it is a practical plan that penalizes those who have already broken the law.
The federal government's finances worried some, particularly in light of the health care bill.
Noting that the government "owns" a car company and financial company, Wyden said there needs to be an "exit strategy" to get back to a balance between the private sector and the government. He received loud applause when he said he'd voted against the bank bailout.
Once questions were finished, Wyden was quickly ushered out the door so he could make the day's next town hall in Albany.
But before he left, Wyden said he hoped participants walked out thinking, "This is the way the Founding Fathers wanted it to work."
Johnson was impressed with the civility of the audience, but noted there's a difference between having conversations about health care and actually impacting what Congress does.
"Much more (of a) difference," she said.