Lane hosts Jeff Merkley town hall

Marek Belka // The Torch
Senator Jeff Merkley honors Terry McDonald, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, with an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol. Merkley praised St. Vincent de Paul for their work on combating homelessness in Lane County.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley held a Town Hall meeting on Feb. 21 at Lane Community College’s Center for Meeting and Learning. The meeting touched on topics including the continuing battle in Washington over funding for DACA, President Trump’s budget proposal and the debate over gun control.

Well over 100 Lane County residents came out to participate in the meeting, many of whom came with signs and banners voicing their support for DREAMers, the #MeToo movement and a ban on natural gas pipelines in Southern Oregon.

Marek Belka // The Torch
Dr. Susan Reike-Smith, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, explains how Senator Merkley’s recently-unveiled BUILD Act would benefit students in Lane County. The BUILD Act would set aside funding for wood and metal shop classes in public schools.

Sen. Merkley opened the Town Hall by announcing a Senate bill he authored, named the “BUILD Act of 2018.” The act would restore funding for woodworking and metalworking classes in public schools in order to encourage students to consider careers in manufacturing fields. Sen. Merkley invited Dr. Susan Reike-Smith, superintendent of the Springfield School Board, to introduce the bill alongside him and explain why funding for shop classes is important for public schools.

“There are plenty of job opportunities for people in the mechanical fields, we just need to train those people,” Reike-Smith said. “The only thing holding us back is funding.”

“This bill [allows] preparation for opportunities in a labor force that may not require a college degree,” Merkley added.

Sen. Merkley also took time to honor the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County for their “innovative thinking to the challenge of homelessness.” Merkley presented SVDP executive director Terry McDonald with a flag that once flew over the U.S. Capitol.

At the beginning of the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, Sen. Merkley asked the gathered crowd about their opinions on increased gun control measures, like tighter background checks that would include domestic violence charges. The crowd exploded in cheers, with the vast majority of the crowd holding up green signs that signaled agreement.

Even those with pro-gun stances, like hunter Steven Wilhite, made comments in support of increased restrictions on assault rifles. Wilhite noted that, as a hunter, he has to abide by strict rules during duck hunting season, but assault rifles are relatively unregulated.

“If you go hunting for a cape buffalo with an AR-15, you’re going to get killed by that buffalo,” Wilhite said. “An AR-15 has no use but to kill people, and that’s what it does.”

Marek Belka // The Torch
Debbie Paine, a Lane County resident, holds a sign voicing her support for women and immigrants. Paine was one of a crowd of hundreds that pressed Senator Jeff Merkley for action on a bill to fund DACA.

Other members of the audience asked Sen. Merkley about the efforts to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in Congress. Merkley received some pushback from the audience when he acknowledged that Democrats in Congress would likely need the President’s help to pass any immigration reform bill and that “the path to getting there is not clear.”

Marie Pompano, a Lowell resident and retired Illinois public defender, came to the Town Hall specifically to hear news about a plan for DACA. She expressed concern about the lack of action in Congress.

“It’s frustrating that nothing is getting done, that every chance to get it passed gets blocked,” Pompano said. “I appreciate what Jeff [Merkley] has done, but he needs to be a leader on this, not trying to compromise with Trump.”

Merkley, the junior senator for Oregon, holds town hall events in all 36 Oregon counties every year. The Feb. 21 event was his twelfth so far this year, which he followed with a town hall in Benton County later that day. A vote on Merkley’s BUILD Act is expected to arrive on the Senate floor later this year.