Bipartisan Town Hall Madness!

On Saturday, March 30, area residents filed into the auditorium at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany to question a bipartisan group of state legislators. Those present were our State Senator Sara Gelser, as well as house members Marty Wilde (D-Eugene), Shelly Boshart Davis (R-Albany), and even our old friend Mike Nearman of HD-23, who slithered out from what I assume is his shadowy lair to field questions from constituents.

Last year, while researching for a story I was writing on Oregon hate groups, I discovered that Nearman was listed as the Vice President for an organization called Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR). The name sounds innocuous enough, but this group and its founders have ties to white nationalism that date back to its inception, garnering it the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center who categorized OFIR as a hate group in 2017. My story was picked up and reported on briefly by a few national outlets like the Daily Beast and Paste Magazine, but it quickly fizzled into obscurity. Given our current political climate, I suppose a state lawmaker holding a leadership position within a hate group just isn’t all that interesting to people, and certainly not to HD-23, which re-elected him regardless. OFIR’s current vice president is now listed as “pending.”

I felt that it was necessary to publicly confront Nearman about this, so I went to LBCC, took a ticket, had a seat in the auditorium, and patiently awaited my ticket number to be drawn so I could ask a question.

These events are almost always frequented by grandstanding baby boomers that yammer on about their concerns (you guys already wrecked the environment and the economy, may we have a chance to speak, please?), but I quickly realized that these old timers had some competition at this event. The place was filled with women sporting blonde “I’d like to see the manager” hair (this is hyperbole) and an overwhelming concern about mandatory vaccinations (NOT hyperbole). I learned that some of this well-organized faction had traveled from as far as Bend to confront our legislators. After discussing the vaccination issue ad nauseam, they refused to relent, even after the moderator asked them to stand down so other topics could be discussed. They hijacked the event and my number was never called, but Nearman managed to damn himself without my help.

I’d briefly spoken with Rep. Nearman on the phone before, but this was my first in-person encounter with him, and based on shallow impressions alone I can see how his constituency might find him desirable. He has this British comedy quality to his speech and cadence, almost like a racist Hugh Grant. It wasn’t the “um’s” and “uh’s” in his statements that were concerning to me, though, it was the racism and ignorance packed in between. Even in the context of the vaccination issue, he couldn’t help but spout a racist trope, suggesting that immigrants traveling over our southern border carry diseases and might infect kids in our schools. Using the false notion that immigrants from developing nations are cesspools of disease is a centuries-old tactic for whipping up anti-immigrant fervor, and the smattering of applause he earned for that remark suggested that it continues to be effective.

Nearman’s bizarre remarks continued. He noted that we don’t need background checks to practice our First Amendment rights, insinuating that we shouldn’t need the same to purchase firearms, and was not challenged. One constituent said that she “just knows” people are voting illegally while presenting no evidence (I’m guessing that she saw a brown person vote one time), and Nearman replied that she should report those she suspects of voting illegally to the county. To a question about sport fishing, he said that we should start issuing tags to hunt sea lions. Calm down, buddy.

Nearman’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings were not completely unchallenged. Senator Gelser politely pushed back against Nearman’s claim that immigrants carry disease, and also stated the total lack of evidence concerning widespread voter fraud. I was relieved that she said something, but I wish she would’ve been louder.

In her closing statement, Rep. Boshart Davis spoke at length about bipartisanship in Salem, with Republicans like herself and Democrats working hand in hand to solve problems and lead Oregon into a brighter future. My thoughts turned to states like Michigan and Wisconsin where GOP majorities have done everything possible to limit Democratic power and politically crush their opponents, and I wondered if they might do the same in Oregon if the tables were turned. This brand of political warfare just isn’t the Democratic Party’s style, however, and it’s possible that this craving for civility allows for immensely problematic figures like Nearman to find success. If our Democratic supermajority wants to work with seemingly reasonable Republicans like Rep. Boshart Davis, I begrudgingly understand, but I have zero interest in my representatives giving any oxygen to demagogues like Nearman.

In order to seize power from the Mike Nearmans, Steve Kings, and Trumps of the world, they must be forcefully opposed. A person like Rep. Nearman has no business anywhere near political power, and his opponents know it, but they need to say this loud enough for the voters to hear. Nearman was able to garner favor from single-issue voters like the antivaxxers and gun people at this event by clumsily pandering to them, and they no doubt walked out of that auditorium with a positive view of a former hate group leader who stirs up racism with blatant misinformation. When hate is granted legitimacy, it tends to stick around.

By Jay Sharpe