Merkley’s Mild Town Hall in a Red County

by Nathan L. Gonzales August 17, 2017 · 1:52 PM EDT

DALLAS, Ore. — With a divided country and two divided parties, town halls are supposed to be ground zero for angst, anger, and animosity, but not in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Donald Trump carried Polk County in the last presidential election but Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley found a largely sympathetic audience last Wednesday at his town hall meeting here in its county seat.

Roughly 150 people gathered at the Oregon National Guard’s Col. James W. Nesmith Readiness Center on the outskirts of Dallas (population: 16,345, according to a sign when you enter town), to hear from one of their senators and enjoy the air conditioning on a sweltering afternoon.

Dallas sits about 15 miles west of Salem, the state capital, and is named after George M. Dallas, the former mayor of Philadelphia and eleventh vice president of the United States, under President James K. Polk. Dallas is also the birthplace of the late GOP Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, who was regarded as one of the Senate’s statesmen.

With a 3:30 p.m. start time on a weekday, the crowd included a large number of retirees — there were probably more walkers than millennials (excluding the senator’s staffers). There didn’t appear to be a screening process. Residents signed in with their name, address, and phone number on clipboards on a folding table just inside the entrance and received a blue raffle ticket, which would give them a chance to ask a question during the meeting.

The senator was dressed for battle in a soft yellow, button-up shirt, blue jeans, and brown cowboy boots, but the war never came. After being introduced by Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, Merkley began by highlighting his district staff and constituent service work. “We can’t solve every challenge, but we try,” the senator said.

“How many are concerned about health care?” Merkley asked (most attendees raised their hands) before moving on to a recap on the status of health care legislation on Capitol Hill. He included references to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s amendment as a “fake insurance bill,” playing to the aging crowd on how Republican plans would allegedly encourage young, healthy people to opt out of the system. He described Sen. John McCain’s dramatic vote as “four inches that could separate health care for millions of people,” including the Arizona senator’s unique mannerisms as he gave a thumbs up or down.

Then, Monmouth Mayor Steve Milligan drew tickets out of a basket, three at a time. Staffers took microphones to people as they stood up when their number was called. 

Merkley answered 10 questions over the course of the hour, including queries about health care, immigration, affordable housing, funding for cancer research, the BDS movement, school vouchers, student debt, and North Korea. The senator said Trump’s recent words were “parallel to those before the bombing of Hiroshima,” but when he struggled to recall the president’s precise warning, a surprisingly large number of attendees quickly prompted him: “Fire and fury.”

Merkley could have fielded more questions if it wasn’t for some mini-monologues included with the queries and he was only thrown off his pace when his cordless microphone stopped working and when he had to make a public service announcement because someone left two dogs in their truck with the windows up in the middle of a historic heat wave.

For all of the coverage of rambunctious town halls, there was no yelling, no signs, and no visible signs of protest from Republicans or anti-establishment Democrats. No one even spoke out of turn.

A favorable crowd was not a given for the state’s junior senator. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, 49 percent to 43 percent in Polk County, even though he lost statewide by 11 points. In fact, the Democratic presidential nominee hasn’t carried the county in at least 20 years.

It’s the type of place where a couple of lonely Democrats had trouble enticing people to the party’s table with free ice water on a hot day on Thursday at the county fair while people crowded around the Republican Party table, where you could buy “Make America Great Again” gear and enter a raffle for a Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun.

“We have to live with each other,” Dallas Mayor Brian Dalton said with a smile after the town hall. “In Oregon, it would be easy for a rural-urban divide to develop,” the mayor explained, considering close to half of the state’s population lives in the Portland area, “but that’s not healthy.”

“We can get a jaundiced view of one another,” continued Dalton, who presented Merkley with a black “2017 Total Eclipse” T-shirt at the beginning of the event. The mayor noted that Merkley’s commitment to consistently visiting rural Oregon, like Democrat Ron Wyden (the state’s senior senator), is important to cultivating lines of communication. Dallas is in the “Path of Totality” for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse, and is one of the many small towns trying to capitalize on the event.

Merkley ended the town hall abruptly after an hour, citing a need to get to his fourth town hall of the day. But he lingered for another 30 minutes, answering more questions from constituents, before heading to a 7 p.m. meeting in Yamhill County.

Throughout the formal program, the senator peppered his remarks and answers with references to a “seamless system” and “Medicare for all” without uttering the term “single-payer.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a seamless system, just by being born in America, affordable access to health care?” he asked to significant applause. With a show of hands, a majority of the audience said they would support the idea while just handful of people publicly admitted they would be uncomfortable with that proposal. It’s an issue that will likely help define Democratic Party politics for at least the next three years.

In a time of political tumult, Merkley kept the crowd’s attention, particularly with a story about Chicago officials selling their parking system to what he thought might have been Goldman Sachs. There were audible gasps in the audience when the senator said it cost $6 an hour to park in the Windy City, particularly given that it’s free to park in downtown Dallas and most people here have a driveway and a garage (if not two or three).

Some of Merkley’s biggest applause lines included partisan attacks on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Koch brothers along with more generic lines about “bipartisan problem-solving” and putting “our country back on track.”

Of course Dallas, Polk County, and the Willamette Valley may not be perfect. But for 60 minutes in August, it felt like an example of how politics could be a little easier to digest.