Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley packed the house at a Curry County town hall in Port Orford on Jan. 2.
More than 150 people came to the meeting, traveling from all corners of the county. The senator said he came largely to listen to their concerns.
Merkley said the Port Orford town hall was No. 399 for him since he took office in 2009. He said he makes it a point to visit every county in Oregon each year.
When Curry County Commissioner Court Boice introduced Merkley, he declared, “He understands rural Oregon.” Merkley, the son of a millwright, was born in Myrtle Creek. He and his parents moved to Roseburg, then later to Portland, as a child.
Merkley served as an intern for Oregon’s bipartisan Republican statesman Mark Hatfield, who preceded Merkley on the Senate Appropriations Committee, considered to be one of the most powerful on Capitol Hill. They are the only two Oregon members of Congress to serve on that committee.
Merkley opened his town hall by acknowledging his new nickname - “Sodbuster” - bestowed by State Rep. David Brock Smith, to recognize their partnership managing quarantines to help control sudden oak death pathogens, which now include a European strain that can attack fir trees in Curry and other counties.
Merkley then acknowledged the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary and the work the organization has done “preserving critical aspects of our ecosystem and jewels within the state.”
Kalmiopsis executive director Ann Vileisis in turn honored Jim Rogers, a forester and conservationist who helped start the local branch of the organization.
At that point, Merkley turned the program over to questions from the crowd - which focused heavily on healthcare, including delivery systems for everyone equal to Medicare, improved delivery of health services to veterans, stronger insurance company regulations, and better control of prescription drug prices.
“One piece of this that is absolutely fixable,” Merkley said, “is the drug pricing. I’ve had so many people in town halls compare what they would be paying in Canada, Mexico or anywhere in Europe, or New Zealand, Australia or Japan.
“Sometimes, it’s a factor of 50%, sometimes a factor of 500%, or a factor of 10 times or more.
“This is an example of the corruption of our political system. We spend more as Americans on research that produces more drugs than other nations…and we should get the best prices on drugs and not the worst…
“President Trump mentioned his interest in what’s referred to as a reference bill. I had my team contact his team, and I have a reference bill that says we don’t pay more than the average price among Canada, Japan and the major European countries. But the President decided not to pursue it.
“We’re all getting ripped off together. Let’s fix it together.”
Other town hall topics were an LNG pipeline, an ongoing government stalemate that is accomplishing nothing, the “green new deal,” trade tariffs for foreign products that create pollution and don’t pay fair wages, and green-business incentives for rural economies. [Editor’s note: The current Iran-Iraq events were not part of the discussion because that news had not been reported prior to the meeting.]
In response to a question about the LNG pipeline, Merkley said profits for a foreign company did not meet the goal for eminent domain. He prefers building infrastructure, he said, such as jetties, transportation and electrification, rather than to build more fossil fuel facilities.
He cited increased carbon, early snowmelt affecting salmon and trout streams, and acidity of the ocean, as his reasons.
As to health insurance concerns, Merkley expressed his frustration that this country’s healthcare actually is five healthcare systems rather than a simple, seamless system of “just living here” as the criterion, like most first-world countries.
About partisan divides in Congress - where “nothing is getting done” - Merkley agreed, saying, “You are absolutely right about the intensity of the partisan divide that is magnified by cable news and social media.”
He did cite instances where he has found common goals with Republican senators, such as legalizing hemp growing and maintaining funding allocations for the Civilian Conservation Corps, which were appealing to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Merkley said he intends to introduce legislation in the upcoming federal session to end partisan gerrymandering, overturn Citizens United, ensure transparency in political donations, enhance election security by requiring paper ballots that allow compromised voting machines to have a backup hand count, and a national vote-by-mail modeled after Oregon’s election system.
In a brief interview before the town hall, Merkley responded to the affordable-housing issue in Curry County and the rise of homelessness. In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Committee bill, which includes $938 million additional over the previous fiscal year to battle homelessness.
“There are communities that hope if they do nothing, (homeless people) will move on to other cities. My role is to try to get more federal resources” for counties, he said.