U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden opened a town hall meeting in Vernonia Wednesday, Aug. 8 with news that 10 counties in the state of Oregon would be receiving a partial federal disaster relief grant for severe winter weather damage, a reversal from a previous grant denial in March.
Wyden, who was scheduled to host a 90-minute town hall at the Cabin in Vernonia near Hawkins Park Tuesday, opened the question and answer session with the news, which he said he was just apprised of by his staff on the drive to the meeting.
The senator opened by announcing that the county will receive a partial federal disaster relief grant for severe winter storms, a reversal of an earlier denial in March. The partial funding of the grant will provide financial relief to multiple counties, including Columbia County, that were affected by winter storms in early January.
"We got the early news about it (Tuesday) and that this would be a major benefit to this community," Wyden said after the town hall. "Clearly the community needed it and deserved it."
After the announcement, Wyden went on to allow the audience to ask candid questions of him. Nearly 50 people filled up rows of padded blue chairs, but the rows remained only half occupied. Wyden fielded numerous questions which covered a wide breadth of topics including national policy, logging, illegal immigration and sanctuary cities, housing and care for veterans.
Some audience members prefaced their questions by announcing their political beliefs as conservative Republicans before speaking with the Democratic senator. Wyden commented several times that he deeply respected the fact that people with differing political opinions could have a candid conversation about policies and issues of concern, and the ability to take good ideas from both sides of the aisle.
"That's what I call the Oregon way," Wyden said.
During the question and answer session, one woman told a deeply personal story being kidnapped and sexually abused in the early 2000s by what she called a gang of illegal immigrants in Southern California. When she asked Wyden what Oregon was doing to make women like her feel protected, Wyden was sympathetic and offered to speak with her after the town hall.
"In Oregon we have to just say we're going to have zero tolerance for that kind of behavior," Wyden said, referencing the criminal acts the woman described.
Wyden has been a vocal opponent to statements from the White House threatening to withhold federal funding for sanctuary cities, but spoke pointedly and directly when discussing what he believes should be the legal repercussions for illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes.
"When you commit a violent felony, you need to be behind bars and stay behind bars. Period," Wyden said.
Several prominent community members including Vernonia Mayor Mario Leonetti, Columbia County Commissioner Margaret Magruder, and Columbia Pacific Food Bank Executive Director Casey Wheeler were in attendance.
Wyden regularly hosts town hall meetings in each of Oregon's 36 counties and recently began a stint of eight appearances in five days. Since January, Wyden has held 54 other town halls. Tuesday's visit to Columbia County was third on the list in his most recent schedule.