Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) held his long-awaited town hall at the Hood River Armory last week, where he was almost immediately met with a restless audience shouting out questions and comments.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa — we are in Hood River, where we believe in respecting each other’s opinions, and acting in civil ways,” he said in response, before finishing his opening remarks and continuing on to the Q&A portion.
Constituents came forward to thank Walden for his support of Alzheimer’s care and funding for the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, and asked about topics such as the debt ceiling and union construction wages, but most of the discussion focused on climate change, immigration reform and civil discourse.
The first ticket brought forth members of Hood River High School’s Earth Action Club, who asked Walden to take action towards 100 percent renewable energy in Oregon and the U.S. as early as 2030, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and helping those impacted by climate change.
“Today we are participating in the Global School Strike for Climate, and we just wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about climate policy and some steps we recommend taking,” said Sofie Larsen-Tesky, a senior at HRVHS.
“I’d love us to get to 100 percent renewables, the problem is the timelines and the technology and all the things that need to happen before that,” Walden said.
“We need to have a fundamental lifestyle switch because the way we are living is not sustainable,” said Eva Jones, a senior at HRVHS. “We cannot keep going on consuming and just taking and consuming materials the way we are and there needs to be a fundamental switch in the way we do things and the way we live.”
Club members also acknowledged that Walden has pointed out concerns with the Green New Deal in the past and asked him what alternatives he was considering.
“I think we should have a hearing on it (the Green New Deal) … because then we can get into what it is and what it isn’t and what it means and what it doesn’t,” he said in reply. “If we’re going to have that big of a change in government control and policy and cost, then I think it needs to have hearings before we would ever vote on it.”
He said that the best preliminary estimate on the deal’s cost is $93 trillion, “because remember, it’s more than just climate: It deals with universal and government run healthcare in there, it’s housing, it’s a job for everybody, it’s all these things.”
On a local level, the club members asked Walden about his support for salvage logging, which they said is detrimental to CO2 emissions and hurts regrowth. “If you’re in support of salvage logging, you’re almost in support of allowing more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere,” Jones said. Walden said that science supports salvage logging, when appropriate, and that Oregon law doesn’t require replanting after a fire but does require it after logging, so salvage logging helps secure funding for replanting. “I think we can find a balance here,” Walden said.
Another big topic of the morning was immigration reform.
When asked by a Hood River resident if he supported separation at the border, Walden said, “In July, I led a delegation at the border to look into these things. I opposed then, and I voted last summer to prevent separation of children from their parents. It never should have happened.”
He said that an executive order has been issued to end the separation; but added, “There are circumstances where the parent is not the parent but is a trafficker. Or, there are circumstances where the parent has an outstanding warrant …and none of us wants (the children) in an unsafe environment. Those are the only situations I’m aware of now where that is still happening.”
He said that he previously voted for a border security package that would address the backlog of asylum cases at the border, support guest worker programs and give DACA children the right to get to citizenship, and while that package did not pass, he said, “I think we need to resolve these issues and it needs to be comprehensive. And we need to have border security, we have to deal with the kids who are here through no fault of their own, we have to have a guest worker program … and we have to modernize America’s immigration laws.
“There is a crisis on our border … I think this country does not have control over its borders, it does not have control over its security,” he said.
One resident, Anne Saxby, said that “jobs are begging” in the U.S., but immigration reform has focused on reducing the number of people that can legally enter.
“We have jobs begging, we need young people and young families,” she said. Walden responded by saying that “no country on the planet takes in more people (and refugees) legally than in the United States … now the question is, is that enough?” he said. “Unless you’re Native American, we are all immigrants … we need to fix this broken system,” he said, and that a border security package is a major part of the solution.
“I think if you don’t have security for your border, you don’t have security for your country.”
Regarding the controversial shutdown and declaration of emergency, Walden said that there is certainly a security crisis on out border and that he supported the president’s additional request of $5 billion for border security, but he did not support the shutdown or the declaration of emergency.
“My distinction was, though, the National Emergency Act passed in 1976 was really intended for an emergency where congress is not seated, not there, and something happens, and the president has to act. It has never been used where a president sought more funding than they got and then turned around and did that to get funding they didn’t get. To me, that’s a bright line on the constitution. And the hardest time to defend the Constitution and separation of powers is when it’s your own party’s president in charge that you have to say no to. And I did. And I’m sure it didn’t make him happy.
“I work with this president when I can,” he said, referencing the Crooked River Ranch Fire Protection Act that the president signed into law on March 14, “but where I disagree, I’m standing my ground.”
One resident, Laurie Dunn, asked Walden about President Trump’s controversial Twitter posts. “A lot of things that the president says are really irresponsible and very damaging,” she said, citing his voter fraud claims and assertions of “fake news” as examples. “These are dictator behaviors … this will really shake the foundations of our democracy,” she said, and asked what oversight exists in the House for holding the president accountable for these statements, and what Walden can do to push back.
Walden responded by saying that he does not use social media and doesn’t read the presidents statements on Twitter. “Personally, I think that social media has been a big cancer on our body of politics,” he said, because it inhibits civil discourse and respectful disagreement.
At this point, an audience member started shouting out comments, such as, “You just switched the subject from Trump to social media” and “You’re pirouetting around the question.”
“See, this is the kind of interruption I’m talking about, you did it the last time we had a town hall and you do it now,” Walden said.
“Yeah, because you won’t answer the questions!” the audience member responded.
“See, this is precisely what I’m talking about — we can’t disagree,” Walden said. “I’m trying to be civil here and I know you are as well...”
The audience member started booing Walden, and another audience member stood up and asked that the person shouting be thrown out. Walden asked everyone to settle down, and Dunn reiterated her question.
“I supported the Mueller investigation, I voted yesterday (March 14) to make sure that every bit of that that can be made public is made public, because I believe in journalism and I believe in truth and fact, and facts still matter. It’s civility that matters, and I’ve stood consistently for that,” he said, “so I appreciate what you’re saying: I’m offended by the things that are tweeted, I’m offended by the things that are tweeted toward me, but I guess that’s part of the role in today’s society — it’s unnecessary, hell, they attacked our little office dog when we put up a picture,” he said.
At this point, he gestured towards the Hood River News reporter covering the town hall and said, “I read (a 2014 column) that the Hood River News ran that said, ‘Wished you were a dog so he could poop in our yard as we walked by.’ How civil is that? We are all together in this democracy and we are better served when we are civil and stick to facts.”
Walden has been criticized for skipping his promised town hall in Hood River last year — a topic that was addressed when a member of the earth action club, Montserrat Garrido, came up a second time, this time as a private citizen, to address what she called “constituent oppression” regarding Walden’s choice to schedule a town hall on a Friday morning, where some constituents, particularly students and people of color, cannot take time away from work or school to attend, and asked Walden’s office to improve their communication and to schedule more town halls.
Walden pointed out that he has done 159 town halls since 2012 and that last year was the only year he did not do a town hall in every county. “We try, I’m sorry it doesn’t reach the level you think is necessary,” he said. Town halls are just one way for people to contact him, he said, adding that last year, he responded to 67,000 letters, emails and phone calls — averaging 183 a day. Garrido said that she has sent in many letters, emails and phone calls, but has received very few responses, and those she did receive were generic. “I don’t feel heard,” she said. Walden said that some people call his office 10 times a day, “and I feel that’s abusive, frankly … we will always respond the best we can, but we have some regular work to do, every office does.”
She said that a lack of communication from Walden’s office has been occurring for approximately a year and a half and asked for more town halls, to which Walden responded that there aren’t many representatives that do town halls and said that at one point, he was “fourth in the entire Congress for doing town halls.”
She reiterated that she thinks there should be more communication from his office, and Walden said, “Do you think the governor should do town halls? I do too. Senators do, house members do … we all do it differently, in how we do outreach, so I try to do town halls and individual meetings.”
Walden ended the town hall by saying, “Let’s keep in mind we live in the best country on the planet.”