Jeff Merkley answered questions on everything from immigration to climate change, health care and campaign finance during a town hall meeting Thursday in Philomath but danced around the unresolved issue of his presidential aspirations.
Oregon’s junior senator, dressed in jeans, cowboy boots and a green plaid lumberjack’s shirt, made a one-hour appearance at Philomath High School. Later in the day, Merkley also held a town hall at Albany’s Timber Ridge School as part of a three-day, nine-county swing through his home state.
Merkley began both mid-valley events by speaking briefly about his main three main legislative priorities — reforming the electoral system, addressing climate change and laying the foundation for thriving families with living-wage jobs and affordable housing, health care and higher education.
Then he opened the floor to questions, with the mayors of the two host cities drawing numbers to randomly choose who got to speak.
Early on at both town halls the senator faced hostile questions on immigration, with constituents demanding to know why he was opposing President Donald Trump’s policies restricting access at the southern border.
Merkley responded by talking about his recent visits to detention centers in Texas, where thousands of immigrants — many of them seeking asylum after fleeing violence in their home countries — are being held in sometimes harsh conditions.
He noted that America is a nation of immigrants and said people following the legal process should not be imprisoned while their asylum applications are being reviewed.
And he earned loud applause when he condemned the practice of separating children from their families and holding them in internment camps.
“This idea of inflicting trauma to send a political message, that’s what’s wrong,” he told the audience in Philomath. “I’m going to continue to shine a light on the treatment of children and immigrants awaiting asylum.”
On climate change, Merkley told a questioner in Albany that the best approach is to expand the rollout of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, which have become more cost-effective in recent years.
“We’ve been very fortunate that the cost of renewables has dropped dramatically,” he said. “Let’s capitalize on that.”
On health care, Merkley talked up the idea of letting Americans younger than 65 purchase Medicare coverage in an open insurance marketplace. He compared it to SAIF, Oregon’s publicly financed worker’s compensation plan for employers, which he said had cut workplace health insurance costs in half.
“A public option competitor could be a serious step toward lowering health care costs in this country,” Merkley said at the Albany town hall.
“Another serious step is to end the (price) gouging by drug companies,” he added, touting a bill to limit U.S. drug prices to the average paid in Canada, Japan and large European nations.
People at both events asked the senator what he’s doing about so-called “dark money,” the anonymous campaign contributions that have helped drive a rash of polarizing attack ads in recent election cycles.
Merkley decried the lack of transparency in campaign financing and the flood of corporate money that has inundated American politics since the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case.
“It’s vast and it’s corrupting and the people who are doing it are doing it in massive sums,” he told the Philomath audience. “That leads to government by and for the wealthy, which is what we’re seeing.”
He called for overturning the Citizens United decision and requiring full disclosure of the source of campaign contributions.
The question also gave him an opening to talk about the possibility of a presidential bid in 2020, a topic he has openly discussed. But he came no closer to announcing his decision, saying only that he has been asking himself whether he can do more good by staying in the Senate than by stepping down to run for the White House.
Following his usual practice, Merkley took a moment at both town halls to recognize the efforts of a local organization doing good work in its community. In Philomath, it was the Corvallis chapter of Youth Climate Action Now, or YouCAN, an offshoot of Our Children’s Trust working on climate issues. In Albany the spotlight was on Community Services Consortium, a community action agency that provides services to low-income residents of Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties.