United States Senator Ron Wyden’s message to Benton County residents on Saturday: Civic engagement works.

“I do believe that political change is not top-down,” he told a gathering of about 200 constituents at Philomath High School. “It’s essentially bottom-up. It comes from the grassroots.”

It was Wyden’s 863rd town hall since becoming senator. Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, and Philomath Middle School Principal Steve Bell facilitated questions for Wyden.

“I decided 860 town meetings ago that I wouldn’t make these meetings partisan efforts, but I want to tell you what happened last week,” he said, introducing a story about a lunch he attended Tuesday with his fellow senators.

“I looked over at the next table and there’s a fella by the name of Doug Jones sitting there,” he said. “Nobody like Doug Jones sat at that table for 25 years.” (On Dec. 12, Jones defeated former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in an upset victory for a Senate seat, becoming the first Democrat to represent the state in 20 years.)

“Political change is from the bottom up,” he repeated.

One participant asked about Wyden’s participation in the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“Our committee isn’t doing enough to follow the money,” Wyden replied.

He said the Trump family in 2009 admitted that Russian money comprised much of its portfolio. Further, Donald Trump, since becoming president, the senator continued, has declined to release his tax returns. And, Wyden added, the recently passed tax overhaul and its benefits for pass-through entities could benefit the Trump family.

“I’m going to keep on this,” Wyden said.

One attendee expressed concerns about foreign powers undermining American democracy, especially with the use of social media.

Wyden said the United States government can’t regulate speech, but it can force more disclosure and oversight by social media companies, which he said he will continue to hold responsible.

One questioner asked how the senator is using his influence in Congress to encourage Republicans to take stances opposing President Trump. Wyden highlighted his work with Republicans on net neutrality, adding that he and his colleagues had been working toward compromises regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. But those talks were derailed by the president’s controversial comments last week disparaging Haitians and African countries.

“What those remarks did was it unraveled some of the trust that had kind of inched into it,” Wyden said.

Another attendee asked what could be done to prevent Trump from taking Oregon’s public lands. Wyden said he has been a force for protecting the state's monuments and is encouraging businesses to share with Republicans information on how protecting public lands is good for business.

The last questioner told the senator he thought the federal government was trying to dismantle civil society by turning everyone against one another. Wyden responded by encouraging constituents to take the high road and focus on facts.

“We’re going to have more credibility when we stick to the facts,” he said.

The senator said that in much of the world, community members don’t have similar forums with their elected officials, where they’re allowed to ask questions and disagree.

“We’re still doing a lot of things right,” Wyden said.

Lillian Schrock covers public safety for the Gazette-Times. She may be reached at 541-758-9548 or lillian.schrock@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at @LillieSchrock. 

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