Mannix joins crowded field contending for vacant representative seat

Oregon State Capitol, Legislature (Salem Reporter/file)

The race for a vacant seat in Oregon’s House District 21 has begun to take shape as one of the state’s most prominent Republicans, Kevin Mannix, filed in the district Thursday morning. 

Mannix joins four other candidates that have already filed in the district. Ramiro “RJ” Navarro Jr., Dave McCall and Robert Husseman have filed for the Democratic nomination while Mannix will contend with Kyler McNaught for the Republican nomination. 

Longtime District 21 incumbent Brian Clem (D-Salem) stepped down in November and was replaced by Salem City Councilor Chris Hoy, who has said he won’t run again since he doesn’t live within the newly drawn district.

The lone Salem-resident in the group, Mannix only became eligible to run in District 21 following last year’s redistricting. The newly drawn district incorporates Keizer, which was previously in District 25 with St. Paul and Newberg, and parts of Salem. All four other candidates are residents of Keizer.

Mannix, who operates his own law firm in Salem, enters the race with the most experience of all the candidates. He served five terms in the Oregon House of Representatives from 1988 until 2000 and was chair of the Oregon Republican party from 2003 to 2005.

In 2002, he ran as the Republican nominee in the gubernatorial race which he would go on to lose by 33,000 votes to Ted Kulongoski.

During his time in the Oregon Legislature, Mannix authored 135 bills that were eventually turned into laws. Mannix was a Democrat until 1997 when he switched to the Republican party and attributes his success with passing laws to his ability to cross the aisle. 

“I’m proudest of one fact: I am the author of more successful legislation than any legislator in Oregon history,” Mannix said in an interview on Jan. 18. “And it’s not because I’m a miracle worker, but my method was different. Identify a problem, sit down with some folks and discuss a compromise to the solution. And develop a solution that a broad range of people can support and say, this is a good thing.”

One of the most influential, and controversial, bills that Mannix helped pass was Measure 11. The law, passed in 1994, established minimum sentencing for violent crimes such as murder, assault, kidnapping and robbery. 

Measure 11, which created life without parole sentencing for juveniles, has been criticized and softened by Oregon legislation in recent years, which Mannix admits is part of the reason he decided to run again. 

“When people commit violent crimes, yes, we need to hold them accountable. And some of them need to be kept off the streets, especially for the most violent crimes,” Mannix said. “But while we’re holding people accountable and incarcerated, I’m the author of the constitutional amendment that empowered the state to provide good prison work to prison inmates.”

Mannix wants to increase funding for rehabilitation programs in prisons, such as counseling and education, and reentry programs for when prisoners are released. He added that he wants to work on addressing underlying issues that can lead to increased crime. 

“I will have a plan to take to the legislature to empower local communities, to clean up laws that may not have allowed officers to hold people accountable and to train and support teams of people to go out to encampments and find out what are their underlying issues and why aren’t we addressing them,” Mannix said.

Opposite Mannix, Navarro is once again seeking the Democratic nomination in the district. In 2020, Navarro ran against and lost to the longtime Republican incumbent Bill Post.

Navarro was born and raised in Keizer and said that he believes he can represent the newly redrawn district even better than the old one.

“I really looked at the map and I saw that there’s seven different veteran service organizations within the new House District 21,” said Navarro, who is a veteran himself. “Demographically, we also have a larger population of the Latino community in House District 21 this time around, which is definitely one thing I was excited about.”

Navarro’s views on the Oregon criminal justice system contrast with Mannix’s — in part because he’s been directly impacted by minimum sentencing in Oregon. In 2011, Navarro went to jail for 18 months for marijuana. Navarro’s sentence was required to be a minimum of 18 months with no possibility for parole or sentence reduction. 

“No good time, no work time on my first felony charge for using an herb to cope with my PTSD. And there’s no leeway. The judge doesn’t have the power to be able to take my PTSD and other things that I was experiencing at that moment into consideration and say, ‘Hey, you know, maybe this guy needs help,’” said Navarro.

Navarro doesn’t hide from his past and instead says that it’s given him perspective to be help others. Things like Measure 11, Navarro said, look good on paper but can have significant generational impacts on communities. Navarro said that he wants to advocate for policy that focuses on recovery within the criminal justice system. 

“If we’re sending people to prison to be held accountable for their actions then we should give them opportunities to be able to understand why what they did was wrong and an opportunity to turn their lives around,” Navarro said. 

Navarro will compete with Husseman and McCall for the Democratic nomination in the district. Husseman is a former graduate of McNary High School and a journalist — having written for the Keizertimes for a short period. 

“Journalism helped to teach me how a community really works – what it values, how it carries itself, and where the gaps in integrity may lie. I am a more observant and conscientious citizen today for learning what I learned, putting myself out there, talking to people I otherwise might not,” Husseman said.

Housing, education and the climate are three of the main issues Husseman said he hopes to focus on. More specifically, Husseman said he hopes to bring a DMV office to Keizer, improve the Salem Parkway Path and “champion as representative a slew of mental health initiatives while in office.”

“I am a kid from Keizer. This is my home. And I can represent Salem and the state’s higher-education institutions along the way. I owe so much to all of them,” Husseman said.

Oregon’s primary election will take place on May 17 of this year followed by the general election on Nov. 8.

News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.