By Toby Joerstad
Talon Staff reporter
The Bowe Theater is filling up with excited students, teachers and other members of the community. There is some quiet chatting, but suddenly all eyes turn to the front of the theater, where senior Texx Spezia-Shwiff is standing, ready to introduce a very powerful person. Oregon’s senior senator Ron Wyden was generous enough to hold a one and a half hour town hall meeting at Hood River Valley High School April 15, answering questions from curious students about current events as well as listening to what the community had to say. The Talon was present during this town hall meeting, and even got an exclusive interview with the senator afterwards.
Spezia-Shwiff started the town hall meeting by saying the Pledge of Allegiance, with most of the spectators joining in. After some trouble with the microphone, Wyden was ready to answer questions from the audience. Ronald Lee Wyden has been the Oregon senator since 1996, serving with fellow Democrat Jeff Merkley. He is the chairman of the Finance Committee and is also a member of the Energy and Intelligence Committees in the Senate.
“I am here for you guys to educate me about what is important for you, and I am going to try and give my take on what’s going on in Washington D.C. regarding those issues,” Wyden started off. “Let’s spend these 90 minutes together focusing on these issues and have some fun, and enjoy ourselves…I really appreciate being at a high school.” Wyden explained that during the government shutdown last fall, he decided to focus on listening to the communities of his home state rather than taking a recess.
“I saw all the stuff going on in DC and I decided I needed some real adults to talk to, and that’s you guys.”
During the meeting, a broad spectrum of current events and relevant topics were covered. Concerns about the transportation of coal and oil along the Columbia Gorge and further financing of genealogy studies were some topics brought up by people from the community outside of the high school.
Senior Althea Dillon asked Wyden about the financial burden of college, and what is being done to keep college affordable for the middle class.
Wyden expresses his appreciation of her question. “One particular thing I have done is introducing a bipartisan bill with Senator Marco Rubio [republican from Florida] that is called the Student’s Right To Know Before You Go act. We believe this is an important issue, so Marco and I have joined forces to make sure college becomes more affordable. We want higher education rates and valuable education in our country.”
He later talked about his support for tax reform, and calls the US economy a “rotting economic carcass that smells worse every year.”
Probably the most popular topic of the day was the issue of gay rights, or those who Wyden referred to as “them gay folks”. He said he believes the situation is getting better when it comes to gay marriage and also gay rights in the military, with the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.
“Here is my view on gay marriage: If you don’t like it don’t get one!”
Wyden’s comment sparked what was probably the largest round of applause of the meeting, showing just how important this issue is for most people.
The NSA scandal last year and the whistle blower Edward Snowden also came up. In the interview after the meeting, Wyden said that one lesson to be learned from that whole incident is that “liberty and security are not mutually exclusive; we can have both.”
Wyden was one of the first to blow the whistle when the deal about the NSA collecting phone records came out. He said he felt like that constituted a federal human relations database, and viewed it as a violation of the American people’s privacy.
Internet freedom is a cause that has interested Wyden, for instance shown in his work against SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] and PIPA [Protect IP Act] two years ago. He led the resistance against these two acts, which could have expanded the government’s influence on law enforcement over the internet.
After the meeting was over, Wyden received a standing ovation and happily posed for pictures together with politically-interested high school students, or those just wanting a picture with one of the most influential persons in the State. The Talon got an exclusive interview with Wyden, and this provided the opportunity to expose his personal life a little more.
“Hanging with my kids is something I very much like to do, it helps me relieve stress,” Wyden says. He and his wife Nancy Wyden have three kids together.
It is clear that education is really important for Wyden, and he explains that when he was in high school, he never dreamed of becoming a Senator.
“I wanted to play basketball in the NBA. My advice for young people is to just focus and really try and learn the right subjects.”
With that the interview is over, Wyden gets in his car and drives off to what is probably another community meeting somewhere. So there you have it: a person who once dreamed of becoming an NBA star is now a person who meets with President Barack Obama every other week, and even gets invited to the White House. Anything is possible.