Q&A: Senator Ron Wyden on Twitter, immigration, DeVos and journalism

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden holds an unofficial credo: speak up, push back and look for a smart alternative. He refutes President Donald Trump’s nearly every move, harnessing the president’s own weapon, Twitter, for his cause. And according to Wyden, a University of Oregon alumnus, his next challenge may be a new immigration policy by Trump within a week.

Wyden frequents the congressional podium in Washington D.C. to demand government transparency and equal rights. He came to Eugene in the midst of a tour around the state, during which he has held more town hall meetings than any other senator, he said. On Sunday night, he spoke to a crowd of about 1,500 at Lane Community College in Eugene.

Wyden has been a prominent voice in the push for outspoken citizenship. During the town hall, he asked the crowd to raise a hand if it was their first time at such an event — and nearly every individual did.

On Monday morning, Wyden sat down with the Emerald for a Q&A.

Emerald: How is social media helping connect students to politics?

Ron Wyden: I think it’s an enormous opportunity for students, and the fact is younger people are already so digitally savvy; this is a natural sense of that. They use it in their personal lives, so it’s fairly easy to make the leap to news or politics. I think it plays to the strength of a lot of students. Students don’t have a lot of money. They can’t hire big political action committees and lobbyists and lawyers. But social media can drive an idea. It can drive a policy. And you go viral. And it’s a perfect fit for busy students who are the most digitally literate people in the country, so it’s tailor-made for them.

E: You’ve been actively speaking out on Twitter against the Trump administration. In early January, you created a Twitter poll requesting Trump’s tax returns to be released, and after the women’s march, you promoted a petition requesting the release. How did social media help you?

RW: The Trump administration and the president himself have constantly been looking for ways to offer up this judgment that the American people don’t care about his taxes. But the reality is, as I said [at the town hall meeting], that tax returns for 40 years have been the lowest ethical bar, and it’s particularly relevant right now because of all these news stories about … investment projects that involve Russia. In the campaign, he said, “We’ll make my returns available when the audit is completed,” which is, again, not required by law. The IRS has pointed that out. It’s part of the strategy to try to find a way to duck this 40-year commitment. So, the day after the big march in Washington D.C., on Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway went on television and said, “The president has no intention of releasing his returns. That issue was litigated in the campaign and the American people don’t care about his tax returns.” I just listened to that, I said, “That’s nonsense.” The American people didn’t say, “If you win the election, we’ll let you out from the pledge to release your returns.” So I spent all afternoon [on the day after the march] working with grassroots groups. By the middle of the day on Monday, Kellyanne Conway made up another whopper; she said, “Oh, we didn’t change our mind, we didn’t make any news.” But we were able to [push back] in a day because of social media.

E: Do you plan on using social media more?

RW: No question about it, if you’re going to reach people. We’ve got a long way to go to get these returns. As I said, I’m not going to stop until we get these returns released. I do believe this is the lowest ethical bar. What was interesting about this little chapter in the fight is there’s no question in my mind that the Trump administration on that busy news day, after the march, had been able to sneak that in under the radar. They would have tried to build on it.

What I’ve told you is kind of an example — a concrete example a few weeks ago — of the power of social media, the power of grassroots involvement, and the ability that would never have been possible decades ago. We wouldn’t have been able to move on a Sunday afternoon with speed and that kind of velocity. We wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Audience members listen to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden speak during a town hall event at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (Ramsey Sullivan/Emerald)

E: Many students say that voting for a Democratic president in a blue state won’t help, but how can students engage besides voting?

RW: Students just gave a textbook case of how their generation can make a difference. When I came out for [support of] gay marriage in 1995 as the first senator, I said, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get one.” At that time, that was considered a really radical idea. Also, Democrats were against gay marriage, and I had people in the gay community ask me to take back my position because they were afraid that I had been so outspoken that I might dilute the election. If you look at what we always refer to as the arc of history, gay marriage, and gay marriage equality, really came about in the last five or six years for one reason; and that is students and young people said, “Hey, you political folks, we got a lot of real issues we care about. We care about the fact that we’re getting buried in debt for college; It’s going to hang on our backs like a boulder for decades. We’re concerned about where we’re going to get high-skilled, high-waged jobs. We care about whether we’re going to be able to breathe the air. We’re concerned about the cost of healthcare. And you people in politics are talking about how the big issue is whether gay folks are going to marry each other?”

Students took this on over the last decade, and they’re the reason there’s justice now for gay folks and marriage equality. Make no mistake about it. That is why it happened. It is a tribute to what young people can do by mobilizing, driving a message to elected officials. That is why there’s marriage equality today.

E: Considering many students are immigrants, how can students cope with the changing landscape of immigration? How can colleges help?

RW: It’s extraordinarily important that students organize on campuses. I’ve been in support of efforts to get rid of the travel ban. I guess we’re going to have a new version in a week. And it’s going to be more of the same with a little side order of salad dressing. It is a thinly veiled religious test; that’s what we have to keep driving home. And for a country of immigrants, I’m very much committed to this fight. I’m a first generation Jewish kid. If this issue isn’t resolved soon, [students] won’t be able to predict and have some certainty about making their plans. There’s enough uncertainty in a student’s world now — heap this on top everything else.

So they can play an integral role in this. I think that they can play a role that will, once again like gay marriage, allow their generation to be seen as being out in front. It is a different issue, and I want that understood, but they can have a big voice in this.

E: How could the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos affect college students?

RW: Obviously, she doesn’t really see much of a federal role in public education. I guess she said yesterday, she really wants to work herself out of a job. We have big issues coming around now: year-round Pell grants. Because that’s going to be really important for students, particularly as we have a more diverse set of students, we have older students, and … at a minimum, we ought to insist that the secretary of education is not a champion of alternative facts. Betsey Devos claimed, in some of the schools she invested in, that the graduation rate is almost twice as high as it actually was. No; as Oregonians, we’re really proud of a lot of things, but we’re not proud of our high school graduation rate. We’ve got to turn that around, but we’re not going to turn that around by having people pedal stuff that’s not true.

I was able to get a bipartisan amendment in the Leave No Child Behind replacement where there are actual facts backing it up about mentors, about companies coming into high schools, and then agreeing to employ high school students later on. So Betsy Devos can have a big role in what happens in terms of higher ed and K-12. And this is an area where congress needs to step up. She still would need congressional support for an extreme agenda — I’ll do everything I can to deny it.

E: Many students at the University of Oregon are journalism students, and they see and hear of President Trump’s “war on media.” What does the growing mistrust in journalism suggest for the future? What do you think journalists should do?

RW: First of all, as the son of a journalist — my father worked in newspapers and magazines, wrote historical non-fiction — I’ve seen the benefit of good, objective, fact-driven journalism. One of my dad’s favorite books is called “The Bay of Pigs: The Untold Story,” and there’s a picture of Fidel Castro and my dad on the back of the book. And Castro said, “Peter Wyden knows more about it than we do.” And so, I’m sort of a poster guy for the importance of a free and independent press. I think my colleague Lindsey Graham, a Republican, is in the news today, talking about how free press and an independent judiciary is really something worth fighting for. So put me down as agreeing with Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, about the importance of a free press and an independent judiciary. And I’d also say … that there is an issue — not just of formal censorship — of which I think people are concerned and they’re watching how the Trump Administration is trying to morph leaks into a kind of censorship program. I think the toll this takes is by way of self-censorship where papers and journalists say, “You know, I’d like to write that story but I have a feeling they’ll tie me up in lawsuits and litigation for the next gazillion years. I’m not writing this.”

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden speaks during a town hall event at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (Ramsey Sullivan/Emerald)

E: Last year, you told UO law school graduates, “There are going to be times when you are going to become frustrated because life always has an unexpected setback … and a sense that your voice really does not matter. But my message is simply this: the power of one voice to make change is extraordinary.” The country has changed greatly since you said this. How would you put this into context for the present day?

RW: [I believe] in a historical debate about Winston Churchill [saying this] and, whether he said it or not, I like it. He said, “The Americans always get it right after they try everything else.” And I think the enormous crowds that are turning out and all these people who have never come to a town meeting is an extraordinary statement about the faith of our institutions. What it says is that there are a lot of ways to make a difference. Coming to a town meeting is a start. But for all the people who want change and appreciate a free press and an independent judiciary and recognition that security and liberty are not exclusive. People are stepping up. People are pushing back, they’re speaking out. What I tried to do yesterday [during the town hall], it’s a big part of what I call “the Oregon way.” It’s saying, “Let’s offer smart alternatives. Donald Trump said millions of people are voting illegally? A) He’s wrong; B) If you happen to believe that wrong statement, support Oregon’s vote-by-mail system.” So speak out; push back; look for smart alternatives. That’s kind of my credo.

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Will Campbell

Will Campbell

I'm the Senior News Editor at the Emerald. I was born and raised in Vancouver, WA.