Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden entered a crowded Lane Community College gymnasium Feb. 19 with the statement that “no topic is off limits.” He was met with loud applause and cheering from the packed town hall meeting.
An estimated 1,500 people showed up at LCC on Sunday afternoon. Since the inauguration, thousands of people in the Eugene community have shown up to protests, marches and activism workshops to denounce recent actions taken by President Donald Trump.
Wyden, a Democrat who has held the senate seat since 1996, is hosting town halls across the state through the end of the week. He took more than a dozen questions in an hour and addressed a plethora of concerns voiced by attendees, ranging from the role of big money in politics to what Wyden is doing to protect democracy under the Trump administration.
With regard to “dark money” — large sums of money spent anonymously in political campaigns — Wyden said that “Citizens United is an abomination.” He added that he voted for a constitutional amendment to limit campaign spending.
“We’re going to have to address a whole host of issues relating to opening up democracy,” Wyden said of the Trump administration. He told the crowd that he doesn’t believe 3 million people voted illegally, saying there’s “zero evidence” supporting the president’s claim.
Wyden addressed the president’s treatment of the press.
“A lot of publications are looking at how this administration is fighting leakers, when they are really objecting to people writing things they don’t like,” he said. “Censorship is a problem, and self-censorship is going to be a problem.”
In a recent press conference, Trump confirmed his administration’s leaks were real, but nonetheless called the news about them fake news.
Speaking to Eugene Weekly later by phone, Wyden addressed censorship. “I’m going to use all of the tools at my disposal starting with being the co-chair for the Whistleblower [Protection] Caucus to look for ways to protect those who are speaking out.”
When asked about the Trump administration’s attacks on the media, threats to civil liberties, a travel ban and whether Trump’s administration and its actions are representative of a democracy, Wyden said, “Well, look, the president won the election.”
He continued: “What I’m saying now is political change is not top-down — it doesn’t start in Washington D.C. and trickle down to the grassroots. It’s bottom up as people begin speaking up.”
The fact that thousands of people have begun showing up at town halls and becoming involved “is what the founding fathers wanted government to look like,” he added.
Russian ties to the Trump administration and the U.S. election came up several times during the town hall. Wyden told the crowd that “we are headed toward a special prosecutor” to investigate the administration’s ties to Russia.
About the Russian investigation, Wyden later told EW, “We’ve asked for [U.S. Attorney General] Jeff Sessions to recuse himself, and we’ll have to see what he says.”
The final question during the town hall meeting was asked after members of the crowd began chanting “Immigration!”
“I’m a first-generation Jewish kid,” Wyden said. “I think we ought to start by saying we are a nation of immigrants.” Wyden’s father escaped from Nazi Germany and the senator lost family members in the Holocaust.
He said the debate over immigration has gotten bizarre. “These thinly veiled religious tests are unconstitutional.”
When asked about Trump’s latest failure to denounce anti-Semitism at a press conference last week, Wyden responded by calling it “troubling” and said that, in reality, “all discrimination is very troubling.”
The senator said that the reluctance to mention the Holocaust “is getting to be a pattern. I think that Americans increasingly are going to be speaking out against these kinds of policies. That’s why they are coming to these meetings.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Trump made his first comments addressing anti-Semitism threats, calling them “horrible” and “painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil,” according to Reuters.
A list of Wyden’s statewide town halls is at wyden.senate.gov. Congressman Peter DeFazio is holding community forums 10:30 am Saturday, Feb. 25, at Lane Community College’s gym in building 5 and at 2:30 pm at the LaSells Stewart Center at OSU in Corvallis. After the Eugene forum ends at noon, DeFazio will join Sen. Jeff Merkley for a rally to save health care at noon also at LCC.