NORTH BEND — It was a free-wheeling Friday at the North Bend High School gymnasium, where Oregon's Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden fielded questions on issues as varied as the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas facility, the right of transgender people to use the bathroom of their identified gender and legalized marijuana.
Event moderator and North Bend School District Superintendent Bill Yester chose the questions, roughly evenly divided between students and members of the general public, through a lottery-style random drawing.
In his opening remarks, Wyden characterized the open-ended town hall approach as "the way the Founding Fathers wanted to do it," in order to hear what's on the minds of Coos County residents.
The audience did not disappoint.
The first question, from a student, asked what Wyden would do to prevent discrimination, particularly against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
Another student specifically asked Wyden what his position was regarding the right of transgender students to use the bathroom coinciding with their gender identity, coming off of the recent release of both state and federal memoranda instructing schools to prevent transgender discrimination.
Wyden pointed out that he was the first U.S. senator to support same-sex marriage, a position he staked out in the mid-90s. He said he opposed discriminatory laws like the one recently enacted by the North Carolina Legislature, which overturned a non-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte and which explicitly recognizes only the biological sex recorded on a person's birth certificate.
Wyden said concerns about assaults in bathrooms should be handled by existing state laws that prohibit and punish that sort of activity.
The senator fielded a variety of questions related to the Jordan Cove LNG project, for which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently denied a permit.
One questioner asked Wyden specifically whether he would commit his support for an LNG facility in Coos Bay.
"I'm going to always insist this community be treated fairly (by federal regulators)," Wyden said, as some in the audience complained that he did not answer the question.
Wyden said he supports both more and better education, both at the secondary and trade school levels. He added that his economic philosophy "is to make it in Oregon, grow it in Oregon, add value to it in Oregon and then ship it somewhere else."
In a hotly contested presidential election year, it seemed almost inevitable that the race between Republican Donald Trump and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would come up in the town hall. A student wearing a home-made pro-Trump hat asked the first election 2016-related question.
The student asked Wyden about his take on minimum wage "and how we make Coos County great again."
Though Wyden never specifically named Trump, he used the occasion of the question to condemn what he described as a "Let's run down America" argument being advanced. He said people from across the world want to come to the United States for opportunities. He also said that no matter who is elected president in November, he or she will not have a filibuster-proof "super-majority" in the senate, meaning the president will have to compromise.
A student asked how Wyden could support Clinton's candidacy, given the twin controversies of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack of the Benghazi, Libya embassy and Clinton's handling of classified emails during her time as secretary of state.
Wyden said the difference between what Clinton did — storing classified State Department emails on private servers in her home — and what former general and CIA chief David Petraeus did — leaking classified information to his biographer — was that Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to crime and was fined as a result, intended to leak information while Clinton did not.
Additionally, Wyden called the current government classification system a mess in need of an overhaul.