U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden expressed his concern for the plight of Eastern Oregon residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic during an online town hall meeting for residents of Baker, Harney, Grant and Malheur counties Monday morning.
Rather than the traditional in-person meeting, participants used their computers to access a livestreamed session via Zoom and Facebook. Nathan Hall, executive director of the Town Hall Project, which promotes face-to-face town hall meetings with legislators, or when that’s not possible helps offer livestreaming sessions, moderated Monday’s meeting.
While just a handful of people turned out for the Zoom session, Williams said more than 4,000 people had viewed the Facebook video by midafternoon.
In responding to a question from Phyllis Hemeon of Vale about limited testing for COVID-19, Wyden took President Donald Trump to task for making what Trump’s staff now claims was a joke about deliberately limiting testing to keep coronavirus case numbers down.
Wyden said he heard Trump make the statement Saturday at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“It just shook me right to the bone,” Wyden said. “I want Oregonians to know that when 120,000 Americans die, it is no joke.”
And whether Trump was making a joke or if he really did want to curtail testing to lower the numbers to make himself look good, Wyden said leadership is what the nation needs at this time.
“We need from the president of the United States, a national strategy ... for a properly funded testing program, PPE (personal protective equipment) and contact tracing,” he said.
Wyden said he hopes he and his colleagues in Washington can agree on ways to work toward a solution together.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, No. 1, you’re going to say ... this is no laughing matter, and No. 2, we’ve got to find a way to come together and set in place a strategy to deal with this,” Wyden said.
The nearly hour-long session was started by Beth Spell of John Day, a retired teacher who won the Democratic nomination in May to face Mark Owens, the Republican incumbent, in November for the District 60 seat in the Oregon House of Representatives. The district includes all of Baker, Grant, Harney, and Malheur counties and a portion of Lake County.
Spell asked Wyden for help in solving the “overwhelming polarization” between urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, and other social and political divisions.
“It seems people can’t come to the middle and talk about the issues that are weighing us down in our small communities and in our larger communities,” Spell said. “It’s almost dangerous sometimes to have a differing opinion. What can we do to bring our conversations back to middle ground?”
In responding, Wyden pointed to past political eras in Oregon when Republicans such as Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall could work together for the good of the state with more liberal legislators such as Vera Katz, a Democrat.
“But all three of them focused on trying to come up with fresh solutions,” he said.
In the same way, Wyden said he and Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican senator, have worked together to help support rural communities through the PILT program, which provides federal payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes because of the nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries.
“When he and I get together ... we talk about what is it going to take to get urban legislators in particular to support the kinds of ideas that are so important for our rural communities,” Wyden said.
Peter Hall, a member of the Haines City Council, asked Wyden how police departments can maintain accountability while also continuing to operate independently without becoming corrupt.
Wyden said a bill he is supporting titled “The Justice and Policing Act” is aimed at solving some of the recent issues in that regard highlighted by the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis on Memorial Day while he was in police custody.
“It could also be called, from my standpoint, the Transparency and Accountability Legislation,” Wyden said.
In addition to banning racial profiling, strengthening the way in which investigations are covered and ensuring that the use of force is only a last resort, the act also would create a register of officers involved in violence and brutal conduct and ensure that if they are involved in such activity in one jurisdiction he or she could not just simply move elsewhere to continue the behavior.
Other questions posed to Wyden during the virtual town hall meeting ranged from unemployment benefits, to rural health district funding and the digital divide in rural Oregon.
Wyden said he and his staff are always willing to listen to his constituents and to provide help when possible.
“As I look to Oregon and our future, we’re doing a lot of things really well,” he said. “We have better days ahead and I’m excited about that.”