Fans, foes greet Kurt Schrader

U.S. Congressman Kurt Schrader sang to the choir on environmental issues, earning enthusiastic applause from an audience at the Hatfield Marine Science Center on Wednesday for a plan to cut fossil fuel use by 80 percent by 2050. (Photo by Rick Beasley)

NEWPORT — Far from the contentious impeachment proceedings that Kurt Schrader voted for in Washington, D.C., Oregon’s “cowboy congressman” held a town hall meeting Wednesday at the Hatfield Marine Science Center that went from reserved to rowdy as fast as a bull breaking from a rodeo chute.

The dust-up between Schrader and an audience member over the five-term congressman’s corporate donors was quickly corralled but augured what may be his toughest ride yet for reelection to Oregon’s 5th District. Supporters of a challenger facing Schrader in the May 19 Democrat primary, Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba, passed out campaign flyers at the front door.

Schrader, dressed in signature cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans and a Pendleton Whiskey belt buckle, is a self-described “blue dog Democrat” — a Dem with a conservative voting record — who frequently referred to bi-partisan accomplishments during his talk.

“There’s a lot more going on that the national news media never tells you about,” asserted Schrader, an organic farmer and veterinarian from Oregon City with Ivy League credentials who spent 10 years in the Oregon Legislature before his 2009 election to Congress.

Instead of ranting against President Trump, Schrader gave the embattled chief executive credit — along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — on several initiatives including the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal that recently passed the House, and the passage of an actual budget rather than a continuing resolution.

“For the first time in many years, families, businesses and workers will have certainty about the shape of the universe,” Schrader said, acknowledging Congress has shirked its “basic duty” of financing government operations. “The Hatfield Science Center will know what the grants will be.”

Braving stormy weather, about 100 people signed up to hear Schrader, with many taking lottery tickets at the front desk for a chance to ask the congressman a question. The first winner got to the point, claiming most of Schrader’s campaign donors were pharmaceutical, insurance, health and energy corporations.

“How can we expect you to be representing us and not people who are giving you that money?” she asked.

Sensing a stampede, moderator Kaety Jacobson, a Lincoln County commissioner, tried to deflect the inquiry as a “campaign-related” matter that shouldn’t be on the agenda. But Schrader took the hardball criticism standing up, calling it “a fair question” and saying he has attracted more than 700 individual donors, as well as money from firefighter, environmental and education unions in the current campaign cycle.

“I’m not for hire to the highest bidder more than anyone else,” replied Schrader, saying his biggest concern is billionaires who are able to buy office. “As far as pharmaceutical companies, I’ve been the only guy to introduce a bill to reign them in.”

The audience member continued to press and interrupt Schrader, however, in a raucous exchange that electrified the auditorium. Announcing, “We’re moving on,” Jacobson read the next lottery winner’s number into the microphone.

Schrader fielded a question from Newport Mayor Dean Sawyer, who complained about the evaporation of federal housing dollars to small communities over the last 30 years. He said a 110-unit, low-income apartment complex under construction “won’t even put a dent” into demand.

Schrader was not optimistic, saying the Trump administration “is not a fan” of the federal housing budget. Moreover, so-called Section 8 housing is in bad favor after many homes built for the poor were converted into condominiums or upscale rentals. In the meantime, people can still turn to programs such as rental assistance, Schrader advised.

Schrader sang to the choir on environmental issues, however, earning enthusiastic applause from the audience for a bipartisan plan to cut fossil fuel use 80 percent by 2050. Following a comment from one of several scientists in the room that the end is near — 10 years, the researcher warned, before the clock can’t be turned back on global warming — Schrader outlined the ambitious idea.

Schrader called for support of an initiative that mirrors, on a national level, Oregon’s controversial “tax and cap” bill passed by the Oregon House in 2019 but derailed by a Republican walkout in the Senate. He encouraged a national competition to develop new energy sources to replace oil and gas, saying he was “agnostic” to potential sources, including atomic energy.

Schrader said the U.S. should rejoin a global climate accord agreement, but added that the world’s largest polluters, China and India, must reduce emissions for the pact to work.

Schrader also touched on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, describing a major scandal at Oregon’s Chemawa Indian School in Salem and a special hearing he convened to investigate the facility, which he described as ineffective and mired in bureaucracy. When asked about humanitarian aid for storm-ravaged Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, he was sympathetic while sharply criticizing the island’s government.

Responding to a question about the national debt, Schrader called attempts to curb deficit spending “disappointing,” reflecting on his days in the Oregon Legislature “when we had to balance the budget.” He fielded other questions from marijuana-derived CBDs to building new infrastructure, but returned time and again to familiar themes.

“Climate change, homelessness and health care are the biggest concerns we hear from constituents,” Schrader concluded. “The biggest problem is how to pay for it.”

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