Sen. Jeff Merkley town hall

Bandon High School senior Marino Santoro asks a question of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley at Merkley's town hall Tuesday morning in Bandon.

BANDON — “Everywhere you turn, you see impacts from this shutdown,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon on the longest government shutdown in history.

Merkley pointed to the impacts of the shutdown just before his 11th town hall meeting of the year, an annual tradition to touch base with his constituents. This year in Coos County, he visited Bandon’s Conference and Community Center, better known as The Barn on Tuesday, Jan. 22.

“The public is frustrated by this shutdown for not being able to get gears to turn, whether they need to get a mortgage, a business loan, or apply for an agricultural program,” he said. “Shortly we will see, in a month or so, that we won’t have funding for the food stamp program, which will be a huge impact on struggling families. The current situation is horrible.”

During the town hall, which was attended by nearly 200 local residents, a few of the questions centered on the shutdown.

Prior to the town hall, Merkley met with The World and Bandon Western World and explained that the House recently proposed a way forward out of the shutdown. The House told President Donald Trump that he has taken seven spending bills hostage, with only one associated with the border.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley speaks to an audience of almost 200 people at his town hall Tuesday morning at The Barn in Bandon.

“Release six of those hostages and let’s do a short term continuing resolution so people are getting paid while we argue with each other,” Merkley summed up in regards to the bill. “There would be pressure in the deadline, but doing this deep damage to the country is simply wrong.”

In response, Trump put forward what Merkley called a “non-proposal” where he said he would agree to not deport the DREAMers, which he has already been told by court decisions that he can’t do anyway.

“That doesn’t open the government or release the hostages," Merkley said.

Some of those caught in the middle are members of the U.S. Coast Guard, who have been helped locally by food drives and individual donations.

“To the Coast Guard, thank you for your enormous service to our security and safety, as well as rescue functions you face on the dangerous coast,” he said. “It’s outrageous the government is closed and we are pursuing every reasonable path to restore it. I hope we can get there very quickly.”

In addition to the hundreds of thousands U.S. citizens and service members working unpaid, Merkley highlighted local damage being done by the shutdown. These early winter months are when the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management conducts prescribed burns and thin out national forest lands. It is also when firefighters undergo training, some of which has been canceled during the shutdown.

Roger Straus, a member of the Bandon Veterans Memorial Committee, shakes hands with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley after the group was given a flag th…

“At the heart of this, Democrats and Republicans are fully supportive of border security,” he told The World. “We sent over $1 billion and a half to the administration last year for it, but we’re against wasting taxpayer money on a fourth century strategy on a 21st century problem.”

As he put it, the 30-foot border wall that Trump has shut the government down over “has become a symbol of racism.”

“It’s a bad message and here we are on Martin Luther King weekend where he talked about building bridges, not walls,” Merkley said. “I’ve gone to the border and border security told me they need high-tech sensors when people approach the border and more staff to respond. I think that sounds pretty reasonable.”

Other questions Merkley was faced during the town hall spanned from healthcare, child detainment centers, and a plea for him to recognize human rights violations in local communities.

One Bandon resident, Lorraine Pool, also stood up to ask if Trump will be impeached or removed through Amendment 25.

“I’m afraid Trump is mentally unstable,” she said, which made many in the room burst into laughter.

“We’re in a strange space,” Merkley agreed, though said he doesn’t believe the 25th Amendment will be used. “I think the House is waiting to see Mueller’s report. The nominee for attorney general has been very critical of Mueller’s process. If the president wants an AG to stop Mueller, that’s it, which is why I will vote against the nomination.”

However, Merkley said that nominee William Barr will likely be confirmed since it takes a simple majority vote. But he added that a bill has been presented that would protect the investigation.

“It must be delivered to Congress, but also to the American people,” Merkley said. “So let’s get that bill passed, then the House will make its judgment. It’s not an easy decision. I share your concerns.”

Also during the town hall, Merkley was asked his opinion on the Jordan Cove project, a proposed LNG terminal that may one day be built in the county.

Before he answered it, he asked for those in favor of the project to raise their hands.

Only a handful lifted their arms.

Then he asked for those opposed to it to raise their hands.

Nearly every hand in the room went up.

“I’m opposed to it,” he said. “I went through an intense review of the project. It is the most difficult policy question I’ve addressed because it’s a lot of jobs and infrastructure, but when I look at the landscape of the world, if all of us keep building one more fossil fuel project we will destroy this planet. There has to be a point where we say no.”

Coquille Mayor Kathi Simonetti and another audience member speak with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley following a town hall meeting Tuesday morning in Bandon.

He wants to see jobs created, but said he wants it done by restoring and improving existing infrastructure in the country rather than infrastructure that will damage the planet.

“In the end, I believe that the strategy of depending on LNG for generations to come is an enormous mistake,” he said.

Two students from Bandon High School also stood to ask Merkley questions, a tradition for his town halls.

The first was Marino Santoro, a senior, who asked what can be done to reduce influence from big money donors in the political system.

“I have released last week a blueprint to restore our democracy,” Merkley said in response. “One is how to take on gerrymandering and the second is on dark money campaigns.”

That blueprint calls for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, as well as ensuring transparency in political donations, give shareholders a voice in corporate political spending, promote small donor engagement in elections, as well as give public citizens legal standing to sue corporations if the FEC fails to enforce election laws.

The second student from BHS, Jackson Kennon, asked how voters can support a third-party candidate without throwing away their vote.

“This is a big challenge in our two-party system when you have a third-party candidate you like but is a vote for Ralph Nader a vote for George Bush?” Merkley said and pointed to Eugene as one example of trying to tackle this problem. “A system in Eugene allocates a rating to each candidate and rates candidates by points. You emphasize who you want in that fashion.”

Bandon High School senior Jackson Kennon asks U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley a question at Merkley's town hall meeting Tuesday morning at The Barn in Bandon.

Merkley also presented a flag that once flew over the U.S. Capitol to the Bandon Veterans Memorial Committee. The flag will fly over the new memorial which has entered its construction phase after breaking ground in December.

Finally, The World asked Merkley if he was still considering a presidential bid in 2020.

“I’m still exploring running for president,” he said, but pointed to three main issues that keep him up at night.

Those issues include the corruption of the government through gerrymandering, dark money in campaigns, and voter suppression. The second is the struggles families face through healthcare, housing, living-wage jobs and education. The third is carbon pollution and “climate chaos,” he said.

“We have to artificially change the chemistry of sea water because it’s too acidic for baby oysters,” he said. “We have pine beetles thriving and a longer, hotter forest fire season. We see it here in so many ways and so much more than 10 years ago.”

What he is weighing now is whether he will be more effective in his Senate role versus being part of the 2020 conversation.

“I’ll make a decision sometime this first quarter,” he promised.

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Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.