In the fall of 2009, as he was preparing for a town-hall meeting in rural Oregon, Senator Jeff Merkley’s staff got a call from a local lawyer, who advised him to show up wearing a bulletproof vest. Merkley, along with Barack Obama, had been elected the previous year, narrowly unseating a Republican incumbent. His first months in office coincided with the rise of the Tea Party in the remote, conservative territory that comprises much of Oregon. In Prineville, where the town hall was scheduled to take place, gun-rights activists were preparing to greet him with a demonstration.
Merkley declined to wear a vest. The meeting room overflowed; he remembers the crowd outside yelling and pounding on the walls. People were lit up about a few things, but mainly the “government takeover of health care” that was under way. Back in Washington, Merkley was pressing his colleagues to include a public option in what ultimately became the Affordable Care Act. At home, he was trying to convince his constituents that he wasn’t teeing up “death panels.”
Merkley, 60, was born in the heart of Oregon’s timber country and still lives in the working-class Portland neighborhood where he grew up. Every year, he holds a town hall in each of Oregon’s counties, the bulk of them on Republican turf. He’s done more than a dozen already this year. “The reception has been unrecognizable,” Merkley said recently, while nursing a beer at a Capitol Hill bar decorated with mounted boar heads. The people packing his town halls are still anxious about health care, but now they’re clapping for him. Few areas in the country have been helped as much by Obamacare as central and eastern Oregon. Merkley likes to ask people to visualize the roughly 400,000 Oregonians who have been added to Medicaid under the ACA: If they stood in a line holding hands, it would stretch from the Pacific Ocean to Idaho.
In early May, House Republicans jammed through an Obamacare rewrite called the American Health Care Act. “Just astounded” is how Merkley described his reaction. “Not only were they willing to throw 24 million people off health care, but in the middle of it they put a massive tax break for the richest Americans,” he said. “Talk about robbing from struggling and working Americans to give fur linings to the already best-off.”
Soft-spoken, analytical, and earnest, Merkley has spent much of his time in the Senate backstage, working quietly to advance a full slate of progressive issues—from Wall Street, housing, and health-care reform to LGBTQ rights, climate change, and ending the war in Afghanistan. He is known as a tenacious legislator: “When Jeff Merkley gets behind something, it passes,” Senate minority leader Charles Schumer said recently. Still, Merkley comes across more like a professor than a politician. During one interview, he offered a detailed geological history of a basalt-walled canyon in the Columbia River Gorge, explaining how it had been scoured out by floods at the end of the last ice age.