Franklin High students interrogate Sen. Wyden
Two days after the mid-term election, on the morning of October 8, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden arrived at the Franklin High School (FHS) Auditorium to hold what he called a "Listening to the Future" session.
"In addition to holding town hall meetings – and I've had more than 910 of them – I get out to high schools where I don't give a speech, I just listen," Wyden told THE BEE before he began.
"I started this after the 'big government shut down' when Senator Ted Cruz filibustered about the Affordable Care Act; both sides were 'throwing rotten fruit at each other'," Wyden said. "After they wrapped it up, during a cooling-off period, I decided to go home and talk to high school students – because I wanted to listen to some people who actually behaved like adults, and to bring some common sense and practicality to light."
Asked by THE BEE what issues affecting Inner Southeast Portland were important to him, Wyden replied, "I so enjoy Southeast Portland, and the community events; and I really care about the healthcare issues.
"And then, of course, housing and the housing crunch are really important to Inner Southeast Portland; I'll be talking about the package of bills that will be focusing on first-time homebuyers. A lot of young people and their families are interested in that," Wyden remarked. "And also, making it possible for us to get more affordable rental housing.
"I'm looking forward to this; the future leaders of our country could very well be in this room," said Wyden as he looked around the school's auditorium, filling with students.
FHS senior Annika Mayne, a student in the school's Advanced Placement Government class and a member of the Constitutional Law Team, introduced the senator to the hundred students in attendance. She finished by telling Wyden that she, too, is working to end gun violence.
After thanking Mayne for her support regarding gun legislation, Wyden without further preface opened the floor to questions. Here are a few of the exchanges during the hour-long session:
Question: How do Democrats in the Senate plan on benefiting from the results of the midterm election?
Wyden: "Things are still up in the air. This is sending one powerful message to the president; we said, as Oregonians, that we are going to fight the excesses and abuse and demand healthcare, protection for the environment, and having a policy on immigration that make sense."
Question: What about the immigration laws? Can you do something about that?
Wyden: "I have voted for what I think is the sensible way to go, on bipartisan measures, where Democrats and Republicans work together to beef up security at the border; I have voted for enormous sums of money for more security.
"Second, we must enforce the laws on the books to send a message that we have a rule of law.
"[And third], those who are here undocumented, I propose that they come forward, pay a fine, show that they haven't broken any other laws and have learned the English language – and if they can, they get to go to the end of the citizenship line and apply for citizenship."
Question: Do you think it's more important to pass stricter gun laws, or to provide more funding and programs for mental health?
Wyden: "Look, we need a common-sense strategy against gun violence. To me, that would consist on everything from keeping guns out of the hands of people who clearly shouldn't have them, for Pete's sake – like being on the Terrorist Watch List!
"But mental health is absolutely key; mental health in America needs to be beefed up. My brother was schizophrenic; there are times when I went to bed when I wondered if he was going to hurt himself or somebody else. Clearly, there is a major shortcoming [in America today] in terms of mental health.
"Common-sense measures to keep guns out of the hands of people who should clearly not have them like being convicted of domestic violence, or terrorists, or someone that has a mental infirmity. It has nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans. We need really [both gun control and mental health] as good bookends, not just one or the other."
Question: [It was reported that you said] you are going to ask Republicans in the Senate "how many more shootings must happen before they enact common sense gun legislation?" Do you think it's helpful for our country, and the discourse, to portray the other side is not caring about the shootings? And when you think we should be doing to heal the hurt, and the divide?
Wyden: "Your question is terrific. I spend most of my day trying to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans. In the last Congress I worked with Warren Hatch, senior Republican, and I worked on a Children's Health Program for ten years. He's retiring and I said 'What a great sendoff, I'll meet you more than halfway'. Perhaps nobody thought that, in January 2017, we would've passed it, but it passed. This is a very clear bipartisan example.
"We have to come up with something bipartisan, to make something work."
In answering most of the questions asked, Wyden elaborated by giving numerous examples of his "continuing efforts working for bipartisan support", but adding that when it's important, he's "willing to stand alone".
The students thanked the Senator for his time and provided a warm round of applause as the program concluded.