Marion County residents quiz U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley during town hall

Marion County residents brought their concerns about mental health funding, the war in Ukraine and catalytic converters to U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall in Salem on Monday, Feb. 6.

It was the senator’s 15th town hall this year, and his 519th town hall since taking office in 2009. Merkley and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden visit Oregon’s 36 counties annually. Merkley also had a town hall in Polk County Monday afternoon.

Before the event, Merkley told Salem Reporter that aside from some people with conspiracy theories, most of the town halls brought up questions he had anticipated.

“The top issue for people is housing, and just feeling like while wages have gone up, they haven’t gone up as fast as gas and housing have, and feeling pretty stretched,” Merkley said.

He said housing was already a top concern for him, and he is planning a strategy called the End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act, which would fine hedge funds a $20,000 tax penalty for each additional home they bought beyond 100 properties.

“Because houses should be homes for families, not this profit center for Wall Street,” he said.

Before the town hall, Merkley held a private meeting with local elected officials, including Salem Mayor Chris Hoy. 

Hoy told Salem Reporter that he brought up federal Community Development Block Grant funding for the city, which supports infrastructure and economic development, including housing.

“The flexibility we had during Covid is going away. And it really helps us address homelessness,” Hoy said. He brought up the same topic to Marcia Fudge, secretary of housing and urban development during his trip to Washington D.C. in December.

The town hall started at 10 a.m. at the Chemeketa Community College auditorium, and lasted an hour. 

Merkley stood in front of the stage, facing around 100 attendees.

He opened the meeting by awarding a U.S. flag to John Burt of Farmers Ending Hunger, a group that distributes donations from Oregon producers. Burt gave the senator a Pendleton Round-Up bandanna that said “buck hunger.”

Attendees were given the chance to ask the senator a question via a raffle number, drawn by Hoy. Their questions spanned topics including mental health, catalytic converters and the war in Ukraine.

One Salem resident asked about funding for mental health care, and said there is a shortage of psychiatric treatment beds in the area. She said people with mental health issues are too often jailed rather than treated.

Merkley said that he agreed with her. He added that his Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act would fund additional mental health counselors at public schools. He said more federal and state funding is needed to address the wider issue, especially pertaining to people who are homeless.

Merkley frequently polled the room by show of hand. Most wanted the U.S. to continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. 

“I think that we have to stand with republics against that type of autocracy, dictator, authoritarian force,” Merkley said. 

He said he supports providing weapons for Ukranians to defend themselves, like tanks, but not weapons that would cross the border to Russia, the same line that the Biden Administration has drawn.

Merkley also said that he has been proposing to the administration that Biden create a ‘no first use’ policy regarding nuclear weapons, and ask other nations to join in. 

Another resident asked Merkley about gun control. Merkley brought up the “modest” legislation that passed Congress last year, which closed the “boyfriend loophole.” That provision prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from purchasing firearms regardless of marital status, and added more information to federal databases for background checks.

“I don’t see the federal movement going any further about that. We’re very divided about what’s workable on gun safety,” he said.

Merkley also said that he’s been “disturbed” by actions from the U.S. Supreme Court and is backing a reform to have a certain number of senior Supreme Court Justices rotated out with new presidential administrations. He has previously released statements condemning the court’s actions on climate change and restricting abortion access.

A resident of Aurora asked about the cost of living for seniors outpacing Social Security payments. Merkley said he wants to prevent further cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and that funding should come from income taxes on wealthy people.

Another resident asked the senator about catalytic converter thefts, and said that he “can’t overstate” the number of his friends who have had them stolen.

Merkley recalled when his pickup truck was stolen in the early 90s, and how he had to pay $150 to get it back from where it had been towed. He asked the audience if anyone knew of any solutions.

Hoy said shops will install a guard on the bottom of the car that makes it difficult to steal, and that legislators can make the trade of stolen parts a more serious criminal offense. 

“Ya’ll don’t want to hear this, but consider driving an electric car,” Merkley said, and the room broke into laughter and cheers.

A resident in the audience asked about a federal policy requiring manufacturers to install the guards on new vehicles. Merkley said that was a good point, and added that this was the first time the topic had been brought up in a town hall. 

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.