|Jeff Merkley at the McMinnville town hall/Stapilus|
Town hall meeting number four for new Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, held (like Senator Ron Wyden's most recent in the same county) at the McMinnville Police Station, had some push and pull within the audience. Maybe there's something reflective of politics generally there: A majority of the crowd of about 100 who wanted to talk about the economy, finance reform and health care, and a smaller (albeit determined) group out to talk - as opposed to question or listen - on illegal immigrants and the citizenship of Barack Obama.
Merkley set up his town hall to run a lot like Wyden's; he was still new at it, and there were kinks to work out. The basics remained the same. There was the relatively nonpartisan nature of it, for one thing; Merkley gave over the floor for while at the beginning to Republican state Representative Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill. (His big topic, and a large one in the area, is the Highway 18 Newberg-Dundee bypass, a road improvement which has been sought after for a couple of decades and may be pursued for quite a few years yet.) Merkley opened with a description of his committee assignments, and what he was doing on them; much of the interest ran to his most recent appointment, to the banking committee, a slot he'd wanted but originally thought he might not be able to get. And the thing was dominated by questions. The audience for the most part seemed to center on the topics of economic recovery and health care.
And on that front he seemed well aligned with the audience, which probably leaned Democratic but wasn't monolithic. (Asking how many favored a single-payer health plan, he drew about 30-40 raised hands; just one raised a hand in opposition.) When he asked, "Did you see that outrageous story about AIG?" he drew an appreciative response from the group, or most of it, which was loaded for bear on the subject. What exactly Congress can or will do about the outrage, however, remained a little less clear.
The inevitable difficulty with the open format - which has the great advantage of fostering open discussion, which it did - is the ease with which it can be hijacked, which happened twice.
First was a person evidently suckered in by the web chatter that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn't a U.S. citizen. The other, longer, case involved a group determined that illegal immigrants were ruining the country and costing taxpayers massively; one called out, "Congress is the problem! You are the problem!" One seemed to argue in favor of an American equivalent of the Great Wall of China (apparently sufficiently unaware of history to know that it didn't work out well there either). That group seemed to want no other subject addressed. Merkley kept cool throughout, though, and pulled the discussion onward, over to health care.
Keeping the debate focused, and the facts in order . . . always a challenge . . .