Frustration with Congress stoked both jeers and cheers for the Republican representing much of Central, Southern and Eastern Oregon, during his first trip to Bend for a town hall since 2017.
Rep. Greg Walden opened with a topic that reached out to Democrats.
"First and foremost: the shutdown. I broke with my party and voted to reopen many of these agencies," he said, and the crowd clapped enthusiastically.
But the mood turned when it came to another topic.
“So, tax cuts. It is no secret I’ve supported them. And I think they’ve had a strong effect on the economy—” he said before being interrupted by a chorus of boos and heckles.
“OK, let’s try and be respectful,” Walden countered.
About 400 people packed a high school auditorium to ask questions, many of them critical of Walden's alignment with the Trump administration. Walden distanced himself from immigration policies in particular, just a day after documents released by Sen. Jeff Merkley's office suggested an intentional effort by the Department of Homeland Security to detain more immigrant children without their parents.
"We never should have been separating kids from their parents," Walden told the cheering crowd, adding he was the only member of the Oregon delegation to vote in June to end that policy. No House Democrats supported the resolution. Walden sought middle ground on the need for border security and lobbed a question back to the crowd: "Does anyone here want open borders?" No one replied yes.
Other issues moved Walden into more localized territory, like funding for roads and infrastructure, cannabis banking regulation, and wildfire and smoke management.
Erik Fernandez works at the nonprofit environmental group Oregon Wild and happened to have his number drawn to address Walden.
“I appreciate you having this town hall, but I’m a little disappointed you were here two years ago and said you would do one every year. By my math you missed one. I want to hold you to that moving forward, because it makes it harder for me to trust other things you’re saying,” Fernandez said.
The last time Walden took questions in Bend from a town hall audience it was 2017, and he was booed over an ultimately failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
In November, Walden lost Deschutes County voters to a Democratic challenger for the first time in his 11 terms in Congress. Republicans have a very narrow voter registration advantage in the county, which has become increasingly purple as the population surges. This month, Walden planned eight town hall events across the 2nd District, which has 20 counties.
In Deschutes, many people brought handheld signs, spelling out their causes for the congressman to see. But they weren’t allowed to bring the signs inside.
Walden spokesman Justin Discigil said it was due to a security policy, and that the signs posed a safety hazard in the crowd. Rynda Clark had to ditch her poster reading "Support Public Lands.” She was skeptical about the given reason why.
"I was at the last Greg Walden town hall and I think he did not like the messaging on the signs. So, they're denying us our free speech, in my opinion," Clark said.
Discigil said that’s not the case.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter told OPB the request to disallow signs came from Walden’s staff and was mutually agreed upon.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is also on a town hall tour of the state this month, and a spokesperson confirmed signs are allowed at Wyden's events, so long as they aren’t on posts that could block anyone’s view. The same goes for Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., according to his staff.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the votes cast for U.S. House Resolution 6136.