COOS BAY — Oregon's U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden made his town hall stop in Coos Bay on Sunday to face a spirited crowd fired up about topics spanning the national and local level.
Standing on the stage of Marshfield High School's auditorium, Wyden watched a sea of “agree” and “disagree” signs held up as he was introduced.
“I'm seeing people with signs that say agree and disagree,” he said. “I hope in the days ahead we see signs that say 'Oregon Way' on it. We want to ride that home.”
For him, when he comes across an issue in Washington, D.C., he holds it up to what he calls the “Oregon Way.” The Oregon Way reminds him that he represents a state that is creative, innovative and proud of being the first in a number of areas.
“The Oregon Way is more about taking good ideas wherever they come from rather than one party or one philosophy,” he said. “I want it understood that what I really look for are those ideas where we respect each other and we follow inclusive politics where we don't leave anyone behind.
"Some people say you need to give up a little bit of your liberty and privacy to be safe, but don't ever let a politician tell you that. Smart policies get you both.”
Since being elected, Wyden promised to visit every county in Oregon once a year. In an interview with The World, he explained that these town halls have given him the ability to see and understand what people need and what they want.
“You can't do this job well while sitting behind your desk in D.C. and guessing what's on people's minds,” he said. “This week, when Congress is on recess, we are having more town meetings than anyone else in the country.”
Elliott State Forest
When the question of selling the Elliott State Forest was brought up, asking him what he would do about it, Wyden explained that he couldn't do anything from the federal level.
“I was the chairman of the natural resources committee and I think it would be a big mistake to sell off our federal treasures,” he said.
However, state Sen. Arnie Roblan and state Rep. Caddy McKeown sitting in on the town hall took the stage to comment.
“The government gave us forest land for the common school fund,” Roblan said. “If you've been watching or reading the news, the state treasurer and secretary of state are the ones who decided to take an offer for the forest based off criteria they set up. Part of the forest is actually already sold.”
McKeown said she has been watching the drama unfold and looks forward to seeing what happens when it goes to a hearing on April 11.
“If it moves forward, the legislature could play a part to get money available to purchase some of the forest back,” she said. “It could be set aside as true public ownership, making it truly a public forest. Right now though protocol requires that the forest be accessible, so legislature doesn't have a say right now. But when it does, I will be there to work towards buying it back.”
Another major concern expressed during the town hall surrounded health care and what Republicans at the federal level plan to do with the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Wyden described how Democrats and Republicans worked together in 2009 to get the ACA written, and that insurance companies discriminating clients with pre-existing conditions was one a main focus for him and other Democrats to eliminate.
“Before the ACA was passed, health insurance was for the healthy and wealthy,” he said. “I am going to do everything I can to keep American from going back to those days. We cannot go back.”
What is being seen now as Republicans work to repeal the ACA is “reconciliation” instead of “repeal and replace.”
“Even that is starting to seem like 'repeal and run,'” he said.
Russia and Mike Flynn
Wyden walked the packed auditorium through the crisis the nation faced over Russia's involvement with this past presidential election, as well as with President Donald Trump's refusal to release his tax returns.
“It is important because this ripples through a whole host of decisions that you will hear being debated in congress,” he said. “An example very much on my mind that I will fight for until we get it done is releasing President Trump's taxes.”
Wyden said Mr. Trump is the first president and Republican in 40 years since Watergate who has not release his tax returns. In the United States, releasing taxes has been considered the lowest ethical bar presidential candidates should follow. In other words, the expectation is now brand new.
“When I became concerned that President Trump might not release them, I introduced legislation to require it and said I sure wish there was no need for this bill,” Wyden said. “I waited for quite some time hoping that common sense, fairness and accountability would prevail. Now it is particularly relevant because the American people want to know whether their current president has investments, financial ties and connections with the Russians.”
Wyden said that “the current president is making a break with decades worth of efforts by Democrats and Republicans to ensure that when Russia, whether it's human rights or Crimea or some other issue,is not acting in concert with our security interests.”
“This president has not uttered one critical thought about Vladimir Putin,” Wyden said. “I'm on the intelligence committee. We are pressed with getting to the bottom of these matters that began in October when the head of Homeland Security, now replaced, said Russians interfered with our elections.”
Now, of course, is the matter of Michael Flynn, resigned national security adviser to Mr. Trump who lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. In Wyden's view and under committee rules, it is important to be in the room of the House of Representatives where you “Break no oath, keep no secrets, and ask tough questions.”
“Until our country gets a full accounting on this, there's going to be a real question of credibility for our government,” Wyden said. “I want everyone in Coos County, everyone in our state to know that on my watch, this matter is not going to be swept under the rug.”
This was met with a standing ovation.
The last question for the town hall was from a man who was met with a road block while driving in one of the southern states. He described being treated rudely by members of ICE and border patrol dressed as members of the military, expressing concern for the future of immigrants in the country.
“My parents fled Nazi Germany,” Wyden said. “I'm a first generation refugee. My dad thought he was the luckiest guy on the planet to come to America. We are a nation of immigrants, and with that perspective comes responsibility. That's the core of the Oregon Way.”
Wyden promised not to yield an inch on the issues and principals both Oregonians and Americans care about.
“I will vote no on bills that would harm the Oregon Way, I will ask questions and join all of you on the search for truth,” he said.
Wyden also called up Coos Bay School Superintendent Bryan Trendell and track coach Richard McIntosh, or Coach Mac, to the stage where he paid tribute to “Tribute Hall.” Coach Mac has been spearheading the project, which is to break ground in the spring, that will honor veterans associated with the school district. Wyden thanked Coach Mac for his efforts to bring history closer to the students and gave him a flag to display in the hall once it is finished.
“Today, my take of today is that folks want to keep building on Oregon's core principals,” Wyden told The World. “There was a focus on jobs, infrastructure, trade, fishing families and rural health care. The economy is at the top of my list. There are opportunities to give the South Coast a shot in the arm.”