The battle for House District 21, one of Oregon's few competitive house districts

Claire Withycombe
Salem Statesman Journal
Salem area House and Senate districts after districts were redrawn in 2021

Take a look at a map of Oregon’s new House districts, and you’ll see a languid Z shape stretching from central Salem north and west to Keizer.

It’s as if Zorro had an off day. That’s House District 21.

It’s one of just four out of 60 house districts considered competitive by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which studies how legislative districts are drawn. Because of changes in population recorded by the U.S. Census every 10 years, district boundaries are redrawn at 10-year intervals.

HD 21 tilts Democrat, but could elect a Republican. That means the November election could be interesting to watch.

But first, Republicans and Democrats living in the district need to decide who will represent their party. Each will have two candidates to choose from.

Democrats will choose between RJ Navarro, an army vet and an auto mechanic, and Robert Husseman, a financial analyst.

Republicans will choose between newcomer Kyler McNaught, a 20-year-old overnight stocker at Lowe’s, and a longtime political operator, Kevin Mannix, who has been in the Legislature before and shaped the state’s criminal justice system.

Right now, the district is represented by Chris Hoy, a Democrat who was appointed to fill the seat and is running for mayor of Salem.

State representatives and senators write the state's budget every two years and pass new laws. State representatives each serve two-year terms.

Democrats

Two Democrats, including a former contender in 2020, are competing for their party’s nomination.

Robert Husseman, candidate for House District 21

Robert Husseman, 33, a financial analyst, grew up in Keizer. His parents were educators and he worked as a sports reporter before earning his master’s in business administration at Willamette University.

"Frankly, the reason I ran for office is because I do think Oregon is in a prosperous place right now," Husseman said. "I think a lot of great things are happening at the state level and within the two cities, Keizer and Salem. And I think things are poised to get better. And Keizer and Salem are in a unique political environment where they carry a little bit more power and cachet to be able to help shape them."

Husseman, who lives Keizer, says he is eager to build more affordable housing – including an ambitious plan to have the state spend $7 billion to build 20,000 new units. He proposes the state borrows most of that money, but also turns existing state construction projects into mixed-use developments that include both state government functions and affordable housing.

Husseman also says he wants to work on expanding mental health services, like expanding crisis intervention programs like Eugene's CAHOOTS to every Oregon county and making it faster for the state to license counselors.

Education and transportation also are issues he would want to work on if elected. He says that he wants to see universal pre-kindergarten education and help Oregonians buy e-bikes.

“I think that the state can do a better job of shaping some of those transit connections and creating the conditions to where not every trip has to be a car trip,” Husseman said.

Husseman's campaign has raised about $1,700 this year.

Ramiro "RJ" Navarro, candidate for House District 21

His opponent in the Democratic primary, Ramiro Navarro, Jr., who also goes by RJ, owns an automotive shop and is on the board of directors of Cherriots, the Salem transit system.

This is Navarro’s second run for state House. He lost to former State Rep. Bill Post, a Keizer Republican in 2020. (Post resigned last fall). Navarro got about 15,000 votes to Post’s 20,000 and said in an interview he wasn’t so sure about running again this year.

But he said the community is still struggling with homelessness and the ability to afford food and child care.

“We’re still seeing the same issues and nothing different is being done,” Navarro said. “And that's when I thought, maybe it just takes a different candidate to come out and say that, this is how the issues are going to get solved because we've been doing it the same way for a long time. Nothing's changed.”

He said he wants to make it easier for businesses that are trying to provide child care, giving an example of a Keizer child care that renovated their home but didn’t have overhead sprinklers per a new rule.

Navarro says he served in the U.S. Army and that after he got back from Iraq, he struggled with PTSD. He was convicted of marijuana delivery and coercion about 10 years ago, court records show. Navarro said in an interview that he felt pressured to take a plea agreement.

A Marion County Circuit Court Judge denied Navarro's request for post-conviction relief in October 2013. In that case, court records show Navarro argued that he hadn't received effective legal help in his criminal case, saying that his lawyer had failed to speak with his ex-wife, who would have said the drugs were not his and he had no knowledge of them, and Navarro might not have pleaded guilty if he knew she would testify. Navarro also argued that his previous lawyer hadn't informed him of the consequences of his plea.

Navarro said what helped him get back on his feet was a justice reinvestment grant through Marion County that paid for him to live in transitional housing and a bus pass for three months.

His rent was $300 a month, and he said that roughly $1,000 investment in him “really went a long way to helping me get back on my feet.” After that, he was able to use the GI bill, which provided a housing stipend.

He says he's been sober since September 2013 and has poured himself into volunteer and community service work.

“And now I'm the one that's out there helping people to get back on their feet,” he said. “And so programs like that, I think with wraparound services, are really what we need to support people … getting out of these tents that we see littered along the roads and getting into stable housing.”

He says he wants to increase state funding for services for other veterans. Before opening up his mechanic’s shop, he worked as a veterans project coordinator at Project ABLE serving veterans with peer support, and that money was supported by a state veterans’ service grant. He says other veterans across the state could benefit if there were more money for that help.

He also says he wants more funding for Head Start and K-12 education and that he and Husseman have the same stance on many issues.

“I just feel like I have a history of being there for the community, before the campaign and after the campaign,” Navarro said. “So I would like to continue to be that voice and to be that involved in the community, but as the next state representative of House District 21.”

According to Secretary of State records, as of April 29, Navarro’s campaign has raised about $10,000 in 2022.

Republicans

Kevin Mannix, candidate for House District 21

Those who follow Oregon politics may be familiar with the name Kevin Mannix.

A state legislator in the 1990s as a Democrat he also was behind Measure 11, a ballot initiative that set minimum prison sentences for people convicted of certain crimes. He ran, unsuccessfully, for governor in 2002 and 2006. In 2020, Mannix represented 11 intervenors in a case challenging the governor's executive orders on COVID-19.

Mannix switched parties in 1997, the same week he left the Legislature. He’d been a conservative Democrat and opposes abortion. In an interview, he borrowed Ronald Reagan’s adage, saying the party left him.

He describes himself as a moderate Republican who says he wants to bring “common sense” to the Capitol.

“If you take a look at the commentary every session by the Republicans against the Democrats, and the Democrats against the Republicans, I hear them, in effect, shouting at each other, rather than having a conversation,” Mannix said. “And during my 10 years of service, I tried to emphasize getting results.”

That meant finding common ground, identifying problems and solutions and compromising on some of the details, he said. “I don't see that kind of conversation going on enough,” Mannix said.

He said homelessness is “a good example of a significant challenge facing our communities where there’s been a failure to launch, so to speak, as to a comprehensive solution.”

Some are focused on cleaning out camps, others on providing social services, others on a support network for people facing addiction, Mannix said.

“No one has stepped back and said, wait a minute, the state needs to provide a backstop to all of our community groups, the churches, the non-governmental units, the cities, and the counties who are all trying to address these issues,” Mannix said, “And take a look at, what are the elements of homelessness in Oregon today? And are we addressing those elements or are we simply enabling homelessness?”

Housing Oregon, an advocacy group that pushes for more affordable housing, says that there are about 250,000 Oregon families who make less than $33,000 a year and only 143,000 units to house them. Average monthly rent has increased 10% in Marion County since 2019, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.

This year, Oregon has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to affordable housing, and Gov. Kate Brown said in her annual speech to the Legislature that her administration had spent more on affordable housing and homelessness than any prior administration.

When Mannix was a lawmaker in the 1990s, he said he learned that you couldn’t require someone who had received workers’ compensation to use that money to pay any child support they owed. He introduced a bill to change that, and there was an “explosion” of resistance, he said.

“Kevin, sometimes you have to eat the sandwich one bite at a time,” an experienced legislator told him. So he went back to the drawing board and made incremental changes over time – and six years later he got his initial idea through.

Nearly 30 years after Oregon voters approved the mandatory minimum sentencing measure in 1994, Mannix says he stands behind the minimum sentences, but what he says was a positive impact to public safety has “leveled off” and that the state has “weakened” the criminal justice system in other ways and that it, too, needs a comprehensive look.

Advocates for criminal justice reform say that mandatory minimum sentences have a disproportionate impact on people of color and shift key decision-making power from judges to prosecutors.

Measure 11 required that kids older than 15 and younger than 18 be tried as adults when charged with the crimes listed in the measure. In 2019, Oregon lawmakers voted to stop the state from automatically doing that, and the legislation also said people convicted in adult court as youth are entitled to a "second look" hearing partway through their sentences to determine whether they should remain in prison.

Mannix said he also wants to eliminate Oregon’s estate tax or at least drastically reform it.  

Mannix has raised about $102,000 this year. The largest single donations he’s received are $10,000 each from Team Management Co., LLC, a property management company, and Mountain West Investment Corporation, a real estate developer.

His opponent in the primary, Kyler McNaught, lives in Keizer and works as an overnight receiver-stocker at Lowe’s.

Kyler McNaught, candidate for House District 21

McNaught, 20, says he’s never held political office. When former Rep. Bill Post, a Republican, resigned last year, McNaught said he looked around and didn’t “see any strong Republican leadership.”

McNaught says his No. 1 issue is “school choice” and he wants the government to provide vouchers for parents to allow their kids to attend private schools.

“It's very hard to send them to something other than a public school.” McNaught said. “And a lot of times you see now that the, in particular, principles and the values of the public schools don't necessarily line up with especially the more religious parents.”

He pointed to sex education and to transgender students and said “with a private school, they would more often just go to the parents and then it would be up to the parents to whether they want to affirm or not affirm the transgender identity.”

He said that he doesn’t think schools should affirm the gender identities of transgender kids.

Asked about other policy issues he would want to work on, he said there weren’t any other “big ones.”

“But there are obviously the more general ones, cleaning up the forests, cutting red lines, lowering taxes, just kind of stuff like that,” McNaught said.

He said he supports controlled burning in the forests and that he opposed stricter regulations on the state’s carbon emissions. Asked which state services he would cut to compensate for tax cuts, he said he would cut health care.

If a Republican is elected to the 21st district, they will likely be part of a small minority share of the House.

Asked how he would succeed as a member of the minority party, McNaught said he could use the filibuster. The Oregon Legislature, however, doesn’t have a filibuster because chamber rules limit debate, although Republicans have used measures like requiring bills be read aloud to extend the amount of time it takes to vote on legislation. When a reporter pointed out there was no filibuster in Oregon’s Legislature, McNaught said he would make deals when he had to.

“I mean at that point it's pretty much cutting deals where we sort of have to, and then pass the bills that we can, or just refusing to vote on them altogether,” McNaught said. “And then there's the obvious outside of government activism that we all sort to have to do to get the right people elected.”

According to Secretary of State campaign records, he hasn’t raised or spent any money.

Claire Withycombe covers state government for the Statesman Journal. Contact her at 503-910-3821 or cwithycombe@statesmanjournal.com.