By Scott Unger • Of the News-Register • 

Sen. Merkley hosts town hall

Senator Jeff Merkley held a Town Hall meeting in McMinnville Monday, spending an hour answering questions from residents about national and regional issues, the current state of politics and the prospects of a presidential run.

The event at McMinnville Community Center was the 17th stop on Merkley's annual tour of Oregon counties and his 521st town hall since being elected in 2009.

Dressed in a red button-down shirt and jeans, Merkley was at home in the community question-answer format he's made his calling card.

After briefly recognizing the work of non-profit Community Homebuilders, Merkley went straight to the questions, which covered a range of national topics including Social Security and Medicare, the debt ceiling, benefits for retired federal employees, immigration, and voting rights reform.

The crowd of approximately 100 people was made up largely of older adults and many questions reflected their concerns.

Asked about the increased administrative costs for Medicare Advantage plans, Merkley said private companies have proven to be less efficient than the government at administering the program because of widespread scandal. Companies have been exposed for over diagnosing patients and collecting funds from the government for illnesses the patient may have never had, Merkley said.

“I mean this is fraud, and it's happening on a massive scale in the Medicare Advantage program,” he said. “If we have to change the law so people are actually criminally accountable for fraud in these programs we need to do it. Because it's not just a thousand dollars here or there, this is billions and billions of dollars misspent of our national treasury and our seniors’ investments.”

Merkley also took aim at the pharmaceutical industry over the high cost of prescription drugs.

He recalled a failed plan of President Donald Trump that Merkley supported to limit drug prices to the average cost of the same medicine in other major industrial nations.

“Within a week the pharmaceutical industry had shut down that initiative by the President,” Merkley said.

The bigger issue than prescription prices is the country's wealth disparity and special interests’ ability to flood campaigns with anonymous funding, Merkley said.

“We have to get rid of the dark money, the anonymous money spent in campaigns that's corrupting America and producing government for the powerful, instead of the people.”

Although there is little hope to change the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited donations to parallel political campaigns, Merkley said forcing donors to be public is achievable, but the fight is disheartening.

He sponsored bills that twice got to 59 votes in the Senate, but wasn't able to garner the needed 60th vote on either occasion.

“We put up a disclosure bill and they voted against. In the end they're just voting to protect the billionaires and the most powerful,” he said. “So it’s a discouraging journey but we've got to keep working to save our republic.”

Merkley repeatedly used the terms “frustrating” and discouraging” when discussing the current state of Capitol Hill, but maintained an air of optimism in his answers, often adding an addendum to a response about remaining hopeful or continuing to work at a problem.

Asked about the ability to trust politicians in today's divisive society, Merkley harkened back to the days when America received its news from trusted anchors on the three major television networks.

“In terms of the public discourse at least we started with the same facts and then argued over what was the best way forward. Now we don't even have the same facts,” he said. “It’s a real problem and we don’t have a great solution, I wish we did.”

Asked to highlight anything hopeful in today’s politics, Merkley jokingly asked for volunteers to answer the question and then took a long pause before responding.

“The big arc of things, to me, has been discouraging, so I just have to be honest about that,” he said.

He recalled the stories of his parents coming from “bleak poverty” and marveling at the progress of the country in the decades following World War II. He talked about camping trips around Oregon growing up and the economy that allowed his father to buy a house and support a family on a mechanic's income.

“And I thought, think of how we’re going to build on that foundation over the next 30 years,” he said. “Well, now we’re 43 years later and we’ve got more environmental issues, we’ve got more difficulty buying a home, a shortage of teachers and nurses.”

He apologized for not answering the question and said the country needs a return to the spirit of togetherness that followed the war.

“I think if we can take on this influence that stems from this massive gap in wealth and have another period where we’re all in it together. If we can reclaim that spirit, I think we can restore government by and for the people, so that gives me hope.”

Merkley’s positive attitude and tenure of service to Oregon was clearly appreciated by those in attendance, with several participants starting their questions by thanking the Senator for going the extra mile, whether it was for nominating a son to the Air Force academy or writing a thank you note for a daughter’s Peace Corps service.

One resident even asked about a run for the presidency, telling Merkley “we need you,” in the Oval Office to a spattering of applause.

“That's not happening,” Merkley said chuckling. “I explored it once and I quickly found out that you've got to have a whole lot of money and a whole lot of charisma, and I don't have either.”

Although most of the questions centered on Washington D.C. topics, Merkley repeatedly advised residents to take a card from his staff to follow up on local issues.

Prior to the town hall, the Senator met at the community center with McMinnville Mayor Remy Drabkin and other Yamhill County mayors and elected officials to discuss helping local cities access and use federal funding. He later emphasized his office’s desire to help with local projects.

“We're helping folks know where in the national spending bills there’s actually the grant money that can fund a community initiated project and then I fight for them,” he said. “I’m just determined to deliver as many of those projects as possible.”

Drabkin discussed two such projects during their meeting, asking for $10 million for infrastructure such as roads, water, power, sewer and broadband for the planned 140-acre Innovation Campus and an additional $8 million to assist the Third Street Improvement Project.

Drabkin highlighted the need for renovations to Third Street, saying the sidewalk condition is preventing residents from traveling downtown.

“We know that we aren’t having the same local use of our downtown because our sidewalks are so broken it’s not safe to walk around,” she said.



I attended the townhall. This was my first time for one. When he walked to the podium his fist action was to push it closer the the audience. He introduced himself with a little biography. He then proceeded to answer each randomnly chosen audience members question quickly and politely.

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