Where's Walden?: Critics charge Oregon's Congressman with playing politics with his public appearance | The Source Weekly - Bend

Where's Walden?: Critics charge Oregon's Congressman with playing politics with his public appearance

Protesters are seated in chairs near the door to the office and are reading through a list of their congressman's votes, statements and efforts over the past few years.

Rep. Greg Walden's office in Bend probably looks a lot like you would imagine. The American and Oregon flags line a door that leads to a basic office with a few desks, a conference room, a water cooler, chairs and a bank of windows that reveal a view of Greenwood Avenue. On this particular evening, the work traffic is steadily rolling through downtown Bend.

Most times, the office would be winding down around 6 p.m., but not this night. Walden's staff and the media have been told that the office is being "occupied" - a verb that has taken on a very specific meaning in the weeks leading up to this evening. Protesters are seated in chairs near the door to the office and are reading through a list of their congressman's votes, statements and efforts over the past few years. They're listening politely as one after another speaks. The majority of the dozen or so who have been in the office for hours are gray haired, but a few are younger, including one guy with a bandana inexplicably tied just below his nose. Around the corner, a college student is studying for the next day's calculus final as he tunes in and out of the conversation.

One of the congressmen's staffers comes out of the conference room and speaks jovially with a couple of the assembled protesters. He apologizes that there aren't enough chairs for everyone and returns to the conference room. The sort of chaotic rage that had been present at the Occupy events on the other side of the Cascades is nowhere to be seen. Everyone is polite, quiet and respectful, perhaps to the chagrin of the bored-out-of-his-mind public radio reporter seated cross-legged in a corner of the office. But within an hour, the police arrive and a few of these protesters leave. Eight who refuse are arrested.

Six others would be arrested shortly thereafter at Walden's office in Medford as part of the coordinated "Occupy Walden" protests that had taken place throughout Oregon's sprawling second congressional district. The protesters are asking "Where's Walden?" They want the congressman, a rising star of the Republican Party who represents an overwhelmingly conservative area, to agree to hold regular town halls in his district's most populated cities, which include Bend, the biggest town in the mostly rural region. Walden does, indeed, make his way to Central Oregon. His spokesman says he was in Deschutes County more than a dozen times in 2011 and the protesters know that. Their problem, however, is that the representative has shied away from town hall-style appearances in which the public can ask questions or make comments to their elected official.

But here's the thing, though: as one political analyst puts it, Walden doesn't really have to do town halls. In fact, some have said that he'd actually be playing some less-than-crafty politics to open up the floor in a place like Bend where he's likely to have as many foes as friends. He's got a secure seat and won nearly three quarters of the vote when he last ran for re-election and will likely rake in close to that this year. That's a source of frustration for Walden's loudest critics who say the congressman has an obligation to hear some differing points of view.

Frances "Betsy" Lamb is 73 years old and a seasoned political activist (she marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963) who spent 30 years working in the Catholic Church and other organizations before retiring. At around 6:35 p.m. on December 5, police who came to Walden's Bend office and asked the protesters to leave arrested her and seven others who opted to be prosecuted rather than leave the office without an assurance of future town halls with the congressman. It was the third time Lamb had been arrested for protesting Walden's actions.

In court a few weeks later, two of the eight arrested pled no contest, paid a $100 fine and were on their way. But Lamb and five other protesters pled not guilty and requested a trial. They'll be in court on January 26 to argue their case. Lamb's beef with Walden includes much of the rhetoric that's become the cornerstone of the Occupy movement.

"The people [Walden] associates with are not his constituents. If they're not the top one percent, they're very close to it," says Lamb, referencing Walden's corporate supporters and donations from large communications companies.

Organizers of the "Occupy Walden" event, which featured simultaneous protests in Bend, La Grande, Hood River and Medford, had some specific requests from the congressman's office. They wanted Walden to appear at a town hall during the December congressional recess and also wanted him to commit to appearing at five town hall-style meetings by April of this year. And - citing what they say is Walden's practice of holding public appearances with little prior notice to the community - they wanted the media to be notified at least three weeks in advance of the town hall.

As protesters camped in the office less than an hour before their arrest, Andrew Whelan, Walden's press secretary, was on speakerphone from Washington, D.C., in the adjacent conference room. Whelan says that Walden has been in Deschutes County 12 different times in 2011 and has a plan in place to make his way around the district throughout each year.

"Congressman Walden makes frequent visits to Central Oregon," Whelan said. "He makes a commitment to visit each county twice for a public meeting or event."

And as protesters asked for town halls to be held during the December recess, Whelan said that there were already two planned, which would be the 13th and 14th town halls of 2011. Protesters in Bend, however, were less than pleased to learn that the two town halls were to be held in the Columbia Gorge town of Rufus (population 249) and the ranching community of Fossil (population 473) in Wheeler County.

Chris Lawler, a 22-year-old college student and the youngest of the protesters arrested, remarked, "Why is he going to those small places and not [coming] here? And I don't mean that as a slight against the people of Fossil or Rufus, they need to be represented, too. We just want accessibility."

Lamb said that Walden has a habit of appearing for town halls in sparsely populated areas, away from the city centers where she thinks he might encounter opposition.

"They say he was in Deschutes County 12 times [in 2011], but as far as we know there was one town hall and that was in La Pine in August. He may have been [in Bend], but apparently he's meeting people in private," says Lamb.

A review of Walden's Oregon travel over the course of 2011 seems to refute the claim that the congressman is largely absent from his district. In all, he appeared at more than 125 different events in Oregon, almost all of those occurring in his own district, which stretches from Hood River to the Snake River and down to the Nevada border.

But here's a list of his town hall locations: the Heppner city hall, Long Creek City Hall, La Grande's Max Square, a bar and grill in Enterprise, the Apple Peddler restaurant in Prineville, a café in Mitchell, a community center in Harney County, hotels in Ontario and Baker, the Lake County courthouse, a golf course clubhouse in Arlington, La Pine's Wickiup Junction, and the two aforementioned community meetings in Rufus and Fossil at the end of the year.

Noticeably absent from that list are the cities of Bend and Medford, the two largest cities in the second congressional district.

Now 55, Greg Walden grew up on a cherry orchard near The Dalles and has long called Hood River home. Walden began his career in the radio business and was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1981 where he served until 1987. The following year, he was appointed to a seat in the state Senate, where he promptly became prominent member of the state's Republican fabric and even contemplated a gubernatorial run in 1994.

In 1998, Walden was elected to represent Oregon's second district, a region that had been firmly held by Republicans for nearly two decades. Since his initial election, he's been easily reelected every two years. In 2008, he managed to bring in 70 percent of the vote and faired even better in 2010 with 74 percent.

Walden has made good time of his 13-plus years in Congress quietly becoming one of the most powerful Republicans in the House. Oddly, most residents of the 2nd District - perhaps not having seen him in the orange shadow of Speaker John Boehner at D.C. press conferences - don't realize his standing, says OPB political analyst Bill Lunch.

"My guess is that if you went out on a street corner in Bend and offered someone $100 to say what Walden does in the Congress, you could spend all day and you'd maybe give away one or two hundred dollars," says Lunch, adding that most residents of the district don't know (or perhaps care) that Walden is actually the chair of the Republican caucus, making him the third-highest ranking congressman in his party. He's also the chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. As the lone Republican in the House or Senate representing Oregon, Walden hasn't done too badly for himself, Lunch says.

Lunch is aware of the acrimony over Walden's lack of town halls in cities like Bend and Medford, but says there's a reason Walden isn't inviting the community into a high school gymnasium, namely because it's a recipe for conflict and public criticism.

"He does need to maintain relationships with officials and media outlets in Bend, but holding town halls where John and Jane Doe can show up isn't helpful," says Lunch, "An awful lot of this is symbolic. It's saying 'I care about you and I'll listen to your gripes and I'll offer some solutions.'"

Walden, says Lunch, is safe in his district (as that 74 percent support in 2010 shows) and isn't the sort of unknown quantity who needs to pound the pavement and get to know his constituents. Other officials, however, have a much different approach to town halls. One of those officials is Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who this weekend will hold his 600th town hall in the state since he took office in 1996. He averages about 38 town halls a year, more than double the 14 Walden held this year.

But in Lunch's view, Walden really doesn't need to be holding town halls because he doesn't really need to worry about his reelection. Lunch says there is a way that Walden could lose his seat, but it would have to come from a challenger in his own party. That though, is rather unlikely, too.

But there will be a challenger come November, and she's keeping tabs on her opponent's appearances here in Oregon.

"There is enough time for a representative to be in his or her own district. That would be absolutely my focus," says Joyce Segers, who is in her second bout with Walden, having only received 26 percent of the vote in 2010.

This time around, Segers has come back with an Occupy-centric view of the current political landscape. When the Ashland resident and long-shot candidate - who has almost zero public service on her resume - is reached by phone on a recent afternoon, she has to reschedule the interview so she can attend a fundraiser for the six protesters who were arrested at Walden's Medford office. With Walden, she says she sees the epitome of what the Occupy movement is about.

"His move into the hierarchy of the Republican Party has put his focus on something completely different. It would be fine if he was working within his party to benefit everyone, but he's severely lacking in that department. I think that's he's an incredible representative of the one percent," says Segers.

Some have taken to calling those arrested in Walden's office the "Bend Eight" but maybe now the "Bend Six" is more appropriate, given that two of those people have already paid their fine. The six, however, will be appearing in court next week where they'll fight those second-degree trespassing charges.

Their focus doesn't seem to be on whether or not they trespassed in that office, rather it's an opportunity for them to put Walden on trial.

"We feel that the situation is grave enough in our country that we need to stand up and be counted," says Lamb. "We need to pressure him into representing us."