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U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden tackled a number of a topics in a wide-ranging Corvallis town hall on Monday, but he kept coming back to one recurring theme: He’s not happy with the new administration in Washington.

Close to 1,000 people poured into the large auditorium at Oregon State University’s LaSells-Stewart Center for the meeting, a sign of the charged political atmosphere gripping the country since last fall’s highly divisive presidential election.

For 90 minutes, the Oregon Democrat took questions from the audience on issues ranging from climate change to health care, from election reform to immigration reform, and from protecting scientific integrity to protecting the rights of racial and religious minorities. He also took a number of jabs at Donald Trump, calling on the president to back off on some of his policy initiatives, release his taxes and disclose his business dealings with Russia.

Wyden said he supports renewable energy sources such as wave and geothermal power and would consider a proposal for carbon pricing as ways to address global warming.

On Republican plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, he vowed to protect some of the ACA’s key provisions, such as guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions.

“The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect,” he said. “(But) we’re always going to keep trying to build on what we have and not turn back the clock.”

Wyden asserted there was “not a shred of evidence” to support Trump’s claims that 3 million people voted illegally in the November presidential election but said that changes are needed to shore up the electoral process.

He called the Citizens United decision on corporate personhood “an abomination” for equating campaign spending with free speech, saying that “what it really means is that a rich person’s checkbook and a poor person’s soapbox are the same thing, and that is a preposterous theory.”

Wyden proposed expanding Oregon’s vote-by-mail system to the rest of the country to address concerns about hacking and voter fraud, and he said reforms are needed to bring the Electoral College back to its purpose of ensuring that a handful of states can’t skew national elections.

“The Electoral College was originally set up to protect states like ours, small states,” he said. “I think it’s time to make sure every person’s vote counts, and I will support Electoral College reform.”

On the issue of immigration, Wyden said he supports reforms that would include a path to citizenship for people who are already living in this country.

“Let’s understand that America is a nation of immigrants. We are better and stronger because we are a nation of immigrants,” he said. “We have to have rules … but let’s fix the system.”

And he lambasted the Trump administration’s efforts to keep people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

“Religious tests run contrary to everything this country is about,” he said. “Republicans from Oregon have opposed them, and so will I.”

In response to a question about the administration’s efforts to muzzle dissenting government scientists and promote “alternative facts,” Wyden said he would work to protect whistleblowers and make sure the public gets the truth.

“It really feels like a war on science and a war on the free press as well,” he said. “In America, the truth always comes out.”

Wyden stressed the importance of reaching across the aisle to work with his Republican colleagues in Congress, but he also said the new president was fueling the country’s deep political divide.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I’m going to keep creating opportunities for people to work together, but we’re going to have to see a willingness (from the administration) to reach out.”

The senator accused Trump of being soft on Russia and suggested the billionaire businessman may have been concealing his financial connections with that country when he broke with precedent by refusing to release his tax returns during the election campaign.

Wyden said he has introduced legislation to require presidential candidates to make their tax returns public and pledged to use his seat on the Senate Intelligence Committee to demand an explanation from former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who was forced to resign after it was revealed he had misled the vice president about conversations with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration.

“We’re going to insist that people like Mike Flynn come into an open Intelligence Committee meeting and raise their right hand and tell us what happened,” Wyden said. “This Russian matter is too important. It is not going to be swept under the rug.”

He criticized Trump’s appointment of chief strategist Steve Bannon, the controversial former chairman of a website that supports the white nationalist movement and other “alt-right” causes, to the National Security Council.

“The last thing we need to do is politicize the National Security Council,” Wyden said.

Wyden ended his remarks by talking about race, saying that the Black Lives Matter movement “has ignited an incredibly important debate.”

He said there are a number of issues that need to be addressed, from racial profiling to disproportionate incarceration rates and the lack of economic and educational opportunities for African-Americans. Every American deserves equal respect, he added, and black parents shouldn’t have to worry about their children’s safety just because of the color of their skin.

“That’s just unacceptable. We are too good and too strong to have parents have that fear,” Wyden said.

“It’s an Oregon message that we respect everyone, and we’re never going to allow elected officials to leave that respect behind.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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