An enthusiastic crowd of 2,400 greeted U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., like a soldier taking a break from battle — shaking his hand, giving him standing ovations and sending him back into the fray on multiple fronts against Republican President Donald Trump's administration.
The Ashland High School gymnasium was filled almost to capacity Thursday with residents in a fighting mood over Trump's actions so far. Students from Ashland and Medford high schools rounded out the crowd.
"What a thrill to be looking out at the face of what the Founding Fathers had in mind — representative democracy," Wyden said to the crowd filling seats on the basketball court and in the bleachers.
The meeting marked Wyden's 798th town hall meeting since he was elected in 1996 and he vowed to visit every one of Oregon's 36 counties each year. Past meetings typically have been more confrontational than Thursday's mostly supportive event.
The response Wyden got from the crowd contrasted with vocal opposition some Republican members of Congress have encountered at their own town hall meetings.
"I gather some of my colleagues are having town hall meetings and they're not going so great," Wyden said.
He said people are upset about threats to environmental regulations, proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Russian interference with the presidential election and other issues.
Wyden did face opposition from residents fighting to block a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cross public and private land in southwestern Oregon. The pipeline would connect to a proposed export terminal near financially struggling Coos Bay.
Wyden said the project would provide family-wage jobs. He said the project should move forward if there is no fudging on environmental regulations, and if the company proposing the pipeline can get land access without using eminent domain against unwilling property owners.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission previously denied the project, saying there was little evidence to support a need for the pipeline and any public benefits were outweighed by negative impacts to landowners along its route.
Wyden said he will fight draconian cuts to the federal Affordable Care Act.
The 2010 act boosted the number of people eligible for government-subsidized health insurance. One in four Oregonians are now on the Oregon Health Plan, and the number of uninsured residents has dropped, but the health care expansion also has created a nearly $1 billion deficit in the state budget. One in three Jackson County residents are on OHP.
Wyden said the Trump administration has claimed 3 million people voted illegally in the election, but he said there is not a shred of evidence to support the claim.
Wyden proposed expanding Oregon's vote-by-mail system nationwide, because that creates a paper trail for every ballot cast, as a way to ease concerns over voter fraud.
He said Russian interference in the American election must be thoroughly investigated, not swept under the rug.
Wyden also has introduced legislation requiring presidents to release their tax returns. Trump has balked at releasing his tax information.
As for immigration, Wyden said he supports past bipartisan proposals to allow illegal immigrants who have broken no other laws to come forward, pay a fine and have a path to citizenship.
Deportations should be targeted at people who have committed serious crimes, not the illegal immigrant picking pears in Southern Oregon, he said.
"That person is going to go to bed in fear and wake up in fear," he said.
On the issue of logging on federal lands, Wyden said harvests could double and still be sustainable. Revenue-sharing with counties that contain federal land supports vital local services, he said.
He opposes proposals to transfer control of federal land to local governments.
Regarding education, Wyden said Oregon's graduation rate is unacceptably low. He favors initiatives such as having businesses come into schools to work with students.
Wyden decried Trump's travel and immigration ban against seven Muslim-majority countries, calling it thinly disguised discrimination against a religion. He said he would not stand for a religious test by government. Courts have blocked implementation of the ban for now.
Asked by a student what people should do to make their voices heard on issues, Wyden said they could always reach out to his office and attend meetings he holds. He also encouraged people to call their friends in other states and ask them to voice concerns to senators in other parts of the country.
Wyden said he wants to hear about it anytime a voice is squelched.
"Speak up everywhere you can for a free press and independent judiciary," he urged.
Trump has called the media the enemy of the American people, and has criticized judges overseeing a range of cases, including about his now-defunct Trump University real estate school and the travel and immigration ban.
After winning the election, Trump agreed to settle Trump University fraud lawsuits for $25 million. Some students complained they were pressured to take out loans, max out credit cards and otherwise go into debt as they advanced through increasingly expensive tiers of classes.
"I think this is a unique time in American government. I've never seen anything like it," Wyden said.