The Far Side

Congressman Greg Walden in the age of Trump

Congressman Greg Walden is not a typical politician. Or maybe he is.

The lone Republican in Oregon’s federal delegation, Walden has represented Oregon’s 2nd congressional district, a sprawling area east of the Cascades that starts near Idaho and ends at the California border, since 1998.

Walden seems affable, quick with a quip. He has a tendency toward wonky answers that aren’t really answers. He’s hard to pin down, but real nice about it.

In April, when the congressman held a town hall to meet with his constituents in Bend, it was his first such event in that liberal-leaning city since 2013, that is unless you count the mock town halls held outside his offices there by protesters.

As a longtime House member, Walden wields significant power in Congress. He recently used some of that power to help craft the controversial health care bill — or as some would argue, tax-cutting bill for the rich — that seeks to repeal and replace Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

His role in Trump’s health care bill, the American Health Care Act of 2017, as well as his representing the district that was the site of the Malheur occupation last year, has put Walden’s name in the headlines. Politically, Walden, whom critics have accused of trying to have it both ways by appeasing both his conservative and more liberal constituents, seems to be going all in with President Donald Trump.

It’s also led to speculation over whether the venerable Republican is vulnerable in the 2018 election, as Democrats try to win back Congress. Challengers have already begun to enter the fray.

After a weeklong exchange with Justin Discigil, Walden’s communications director, Eugene Weekly was informed that Walden was not available for an interview due to “Greg’s very busy schedule.”

Walden’s political savvy comes naturally. His father, Paul Walden, served three terms in the House of Representatives in the 1970s. The family descends from Oregon pioneers. Paul and Greg Walden were radio station owners in Hood River, and Greg graduated the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism.

Greg Walden was elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1988 and then to the House of Representatives in 1998. In both the state Legislature and in Congress, Walden was able to gain valuable political power.

Walden seems to be using that power to reinforce Trump’s agenda, a dubious strategy seeing as the White House is rocked by scandal after scandal, raising eyebrows on MSNBC and FOX News alike.

According to the statistics and analysis website FiveThirtyEight, Walden votes in line with Trump’s positions 100 percent of the time. From the May 4 vote on the American Health Care Act to the Feb. 3 vote to repeal a rule requiring energy companies to reduce waste and emissions, not to mention a Jan. 13 budget resolution to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Walden toes the Trump party line.

Tony Corcoran, who once served with Walden in the state Legislature, remembers that if there’s one thing that let Walden gain power at the state level it “wasn’t because he had any particular control of the lobby or anything. It was because he’s an approachable guy.”

Corcoran, who writes EW’s “Hot Air” column, adds, “He presents so nicely, but his voting record is horrible for Oregonians.”

Corcoran says, “The most egregious thing about Walden is he didn’t have guts enough — after his own personal experience with his child dying — to stand up,” comparing Walden’s health care vote and own personal experience to that of comedian Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel famously opened his May 1 late night show with the story of how his son Billy was born in April with a congenital heart defect that required immediate surgery. Aware that Republicans were considering doing away with protections for those with pre-existing conditions in proposed “repeal and replace” legislation in Congress, Kimmel told his audience, “Before 2014, if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you would never be able to get health insurance.”

He continued, “You were born with a pre-existing condition, and if your parents didn’t have medical insurance, you might not even live long enough to get denied because of a pre-existing condition.”

Walden’s own son was born with a severe heart defect that would require a transplant. Garrison Daniel Walden died barely a day after his birth in 1993.

“He’s the one responsible for repeal and replace,” Corcoran says of Walden.

Longtime political cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Ohman of the Sacramento Bee wrote a column excoriating Walden after the health care vote. Ohman, an editorial cartoonist for The Oregonian for 29 years, writes in the May 5 column that Walden was known for his niceness, “but after the health care vote. I’ve decided Walden isn’t so nice after all.”

Ohman tells EW, “Here’s a guy who traffics on being likeable and he’s become ONE OF THEM.” Ohman stresses the capital letters, adding, “He’s the swamp.”

And Ohman, says, “It’s not just him, it’s 240 or however many Republican congressmen who have basically made a Faustian bargain.”

Why is Ohman, who previously found Walden so likeable, so harsh?

“You’re talking about people dying here,” Ohman says. “You are jeopardizing thousands of people’s lives, sentencing them to death because there are some structural flaws in a program the Republicans originally came up with.” He points to the origins of Obamacare in Massachusetts under then-Republican governor, and later presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

Ohman, who writes in his column of the loss of Walden’s child, ponders basic empathy, or the lack of it: “Historically when congressmen or senators have a personal experience, they become sensitive to it. Someone in Congress would have sympathy for people whose kids have congenital defects that would be treated under Obamacare but not under Trump.”

Don’t call it a health care bill, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon Executive Director Mary Nolan says of the bill Walden helped orchestrate. “Call it a tax break.”

Trumpcare would roll back the expansion of Medicaid from the ACA and remove federal funding from Planned Parenthood for one year.

Planned Parenthood operates 12 heath centers in Oregon, four of them in Walden’s 2nd congressional district, in Bend, Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass. “He’s acknowledged he’s never entered a Planned Parenthood health center,” Nolan says of the congressman. “But he’s bound and determined to close us down, knowing nothing about us.”

Planned Parenthood has invited Walden to come tour one of its health care centers “Not a show,” Nolan says. “We genuinely want him to inform himself, learn who our patients are among his constituents.”

Nolan says she has never received a response to the invitation, but it still stands.

EW asked Discigil if Walden intended to respond, but also did not get an answer.

Nolan says that among Planned Parenthood’s health centers, about two-thirds of the patients rely on health insurance or subsides from public health plans. And that percentage is higher in the 2nd congressional district.

“Women will be forced by insurance companies to pay higher premiums to access health care just because they are women,” she says. “I thought we left that dark age 25 years ago.”

Nolan points to the numbers. The bill takes away health coverage for 24 million people, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And she says Walden’s district was in the top 10 of 435 congressional districts in terms of how many people benefitted from the expansion of the ACA. But the bill Walden wrote retreats from that.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported on Klamath County in Walden’s vast district. It saw “more changes than most from the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s expansion of the health insurance program for low-income people. Its uninsured rate fell sharply. Its sole hospital nearly tripled its Medicaid revenue, helping finance an expansion. ACA funds fueled health-care hiring and provided work for contractors.”

“The bill would affect the healthcare of 100,000 people in Walden’s district. It sends them back into chaos,” Nolan says.

Nolan is heartened by the people “finding their voice and expressing firmly and directly, and loudly in some instances” to express their dissatisfaction to Walden.

But, she says, “I’m not heartened by the way he seems to be reacting. It seems as if it it’s not influencing him at all — what his constituents are concerned about, what they want him to advocate for on their behalf is lost on him.”

In her mind, Nolan says, and in her understanding of the English language, “that doesn’t comport with ‘representative.’”

But do all those packed town halls — 2,000 people in Bend alone — mean that Walden is vulnerable in the 2018 election?

Walden has more than $1 million cash on hand for the election, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Previous Democratic challenger Jim Crary has filed against him. Para-Olympian and Iditarod racer Rachael Scdoris-Salerno announced May 16 that she intends to run, and Willamette Week reports that Chris Van Dyke, the son of actor Dick Van Dyke, and stonemason Michael Byrne are running as Democrats as well. And the Bend Bulletin adds to that number with reports that Dr. Julian Bell of Ashland, who ran against Gov. Kate Brown in the Democratic primary, is entering the contest.

Former Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins, now chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, is cautiously optimistic that Walden’s opponents could have a better chance in the 2018 election.

“There could be a significant difference in his electability in this very election season,” she says, but adds that “I’m not so foolish to think that the strong advantages Republicans have will be overcome in one election cycle.”

She points to the nearly weekly protests outside Walden’s Bend and Jackson County offices and the high town hall turnout, which she attributes to Democrats who would have been working against him anyway, but also to his faithful Republican constituents who were appalled that he was the lead person on the health care bill.

Atkins says that because Oregon so thoroughly jumped in on the health care expansion, doctors can provide heath care in a way they didn’t before, due to the increase in insurance.

In Oregon, 654,000 people will be affected if a new health bill removes protections for those with pre-existing conditions, Atkins says.

In Walden’s district alone, 129,000 constituents have health care as a result of the ACA Medicaid expansion, she says, and stand to lose it under Trumpcare.

In the middle of the battle over health care, Oregon is dealing with a Medicaid error: The state got approval to skip the annual eligibility check on its Medicaid clients but then failed to check later to see if recipients still qualified, meaning it dispensed millions of dollars in Medicaid assistance with no idea if the Oregonians receiving it were still eligible.

Post Trump, the Democratic central committee is seeing a huge influx all over the state and the group will hold its next central committee meeting in Burns because, Atkins says, “We do want to be visible in eastern Oregon, and because Harney County has revitalized itself I think Walden will be hearing a much louder Democratic voice than he has in the past.”

One change that looms for Walden’s vast district won’t occur until after the 2020 census. As cities such as Bend grow, many are predicting Oregon will be re-districted, and a 6th congressional district might be created.

For those who want to hold Walden accountable right now, Atkins says it’s “really important for people to go through their Rolodex and see who they know in eastern Oregon to help them have a stronger voice.”

While she says she hopes Walden is listening to people all over the state, “It’s more powerful from someone in the district.”

Barb Campbell is one of those people in Walden’s district — Campbell is on the Bend City Council. EW caught her on the phone as she finished up a protest outside Walden’s Bend offices. Campbell echoes Nolan’s sentiment that the health care bill is a tax bill, saying it will redistribute wealth from the very poor to the very rich.

According to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, the bill would cut taxes “by nearly $900 billion over the next decade, mostly benefitting the highest-income Americans.” The TPC’s analysis shows that “the highest income 20 percent of households, those making $150,000 or more, would receive 80 percent of the benefits of the tax cuts. The top 1 percent, who will be making $772,000 or more, would get half the benefit, and those in the top 0.1 percent, who will be making $4 million-plus, would get 28 percent.”

“One of our concerns here in Bend is Mr. Walden seems to divide his time quite clearly between folks in places he is getting money — and most of that money is coming from big business interests Big Tobacco, Big Pharma.” But then, Campbell says, Walden spends his time “farther east in those tiny little towns getting his votes from people on the edge of poverty but convincing them he’s in their corner, playing both sides of the field.”

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows that the top five industries contributing to Walden’s campaign in 2015-16 were TV/movies/music, pharmaceuticals/health products, health professionals, telecom services and oil and gas.

In addition to taking issue with Walden on heath care, Campbell points to a lack of progress on infrastructure such as roads, and a lack of funding for education during Walden’s tenure. “There are children in Greg Walden’s district — in the U.S. — who can’t afford to go to school five days a week” because of a lack of education funding, she says.

“A lot of voters in Bend see him as he doesn’t do any harm and he’s super powerful and it’s good for us to have someone who has been there forever.”

At an April town hall in Hood River, Walden was asked about immigration in front of a crowd full of fairly left leaning voters. “Unless you’re Native American,” he responded, “we’re all immigrants.”

A good answer for that liberal crowd, but they were less satisfied with the rest of his answer, which mentioned border security. “It’s time to make sure we have a legal workforce that can come and go,” he told the crowd.

The representative then assured his constituents that former President Obama deported more immigrants than any other administration. And he reminded them that, while only 31 percent of people in the Hood River area voted for Trump, the Donald won by 20 points in Walden’s 2nd congressional district as a whole.

University of Oregon geography professor Peter Walker spends a great deal of his time on Oregon’s east side. He’s at work on a book on the Malheur occupation by the Bundy family and others who believe in the privatization of public lands — a group made up mostly of people, Walker reminds us, who are not from Oregon.

“The irony is the Bundys of Nevada came to eastern Oregon and their aspirations were much more radical than people understood at the time —the overthrow of the U.S. government.” An ideology Walker says, most people in Harney County did not support.

However, Walker says, Walden, who has a long history of opposing federal involvement in land use, “made a famous speech a few days after the Malheur takeover happened and tried to have it both ways. He doesn’t condone violence,” Walker says, but “it’s pretty clear he’s sympathetic to the basic ideological view of the Bundys — federal control should be minimal or nonexistent.”

Arran Robertson of Oregon Wild says of Walden’s stances on public lands and logging that “I feel like Greg Walden adapts with whatever position he needs to adapt to in his current role.”

For his book, Walker says he interviewed ranchers who are “steadfastly, staunchly opposed to the Bundy ideology and occupation,” but voted for Trump because they are “genetic Republicans who could not conceive of not voting for a Republican.”

Ironically, Trump’s administration, whose policies Walden’s votes indicate he is in lockstep with, actually has reduced local control by removing Bureau of Land Management advisory groups and local land use input.

“A lot of these ranchers are feeling like he’s going on the opposite direction from where they wanted him to be going,” Walker says.

“There’s a lot of grumbling about health care,” Walker continues. “Rural people, ranchers, loggers — they are not stupid and they know when something’s being taken away from them.” But at the same time, he says, the protesters who have shown up at town halls are “not really the style of a lot of people in that area. People have compared it to the Tea Party movement where the most outraged are the ones who show up.”

Walden’s district is “deeply conservative,” Walker says, and people have a sense that they are not being listened to by those on Oregon’s west side, in Eugene, Salem and Portland.

“For people in eastern Oregon, it’s not controversial, or even in question that there’s been a long simmering sense of not being listened to, and Walden has been a key voice in that.”

In his Jan. 16. 2016 remarks before Congress on the Malheur armed takeover, Walden said, “We need to be better at hearing people from all walks of life and all regions of our country and understanding this anger that is out there and what we can do to bring about correct change and peaceful resolution.”

Voters in Walden’s vast eastern district have historically not felt heard by the rest of Oregon and by politicians. Fast-forward to the recent town halls full of angry post-health-care-vote constituents and the question arises: As Walden throws his lot in with Trump in vote after vote, is it Walden who isn’t listening?