Incumbent Democrat faces attorney in race to represent eastern Washington County

A freshman lawmaker and a public defense attorney will face off in the May Democratic primary to represent a newly drawn House district encompassing a large swath of unincorporated eastern Washington County.

Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland, who currently represents a district straddling Portland and Washington County, moved from Northwest Portland to the Oak Hills neighborhood north of U.S. 26 last fall to run in House District 34. She decided to move westward into Washington County after she was drawn into the same district as Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, during redistricting last September.

Reynolds, a pediatrician, said the move would enable her to run in the district where she has served patients for two decades. The newly drawn district includes Bethany, Oak Hills, Terra Linda, Cedar Mill and Bonny Slope. The high-income district has an overwhelming Democratic edge in voter registration.

The second candidate in the Democratic primary is attorney and former Multnomah County prosecutor Jennifer Kinzey, who lives in Bethany and is running for office for the first time.

Reynolds was among a nationwide crop of doctors elected to office in 2020 after the pandemic put healthcare workers at the forefront. Reynolds has leaned on her expertise as a pediatrician in the House, advocating for expanded access to healthcare and childcare as a member of the Behavioral Health and Early Childhood committees. She has been a vocal proponent of pandemic restrictions and COVID-19 vaccines, drawing intense ire on social media from those who oppose vaccinations.

Kinzey, who focuses on juvenile court cases for Ridehalgh & Associates, said in filing documents that she has grown frustrated with the lack of solution-focused conversations happening in government.

As an attorney and mother of a biracial child, Kinzey said she has seen firsthand the difficulties families have accessing social services as well as affordable and culturally-informed childcare. She said she will champion those issues in the House.

Both candidates said they would support new policies aimed at addressing homelessness, affordable housing, criminal justice reform and campaign finance limits, but differed on key priorities.

Reynolds has raised more than $23,000 for her campaign this year and had $39,000 already banked from previous years, according to campaign finance reports as of April 12. She has received donations of $2,500 each from a political committee for Travelers Insurance and two representing doctors, $2000 from a political committee representing hospitals, and $1,000 each from the American Federation of Teachers, the state nurse’s union and the candidate committees for departing Democratic House lawmakers Barbara Smith Warner and Rachel Prusak.

She has also received numerous key endorsements, including from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and a handful of Democratic state lawmakers and elected officials in Washington County. She also has the support of the Oregon AFL-CIO, SEIU Oregon and Oregon State Building & Construction Trades Council, among others.

Kinzey has raised $1,100 so far, which includes a $1,000 donation in services from the campaign arm of the Oregon House Democrats and just $100 worth of small donations.

Here are the two candidates’ answers to nine key questions posed by The Oregonian/OregonLive designed to help Democratic party voters make their choice in the May 17 primary. Some responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, who represents House District 34, announced after redistricting in September that he would run in the newly redrawn House District 27 in Beaverton.

What specifically in your track record would you point to that makes you the best Democratic nominee for Oregon and for your district at this time?

Kinzey: I have been both a prosecutor and a public defender. My current work as a public defender puts me in the heart of our social services. The lack of access driven by a failure of the Legislature to act has resulted in waitlists for needed services ranging from several weeks to several months. As a new mother, I understand the lack of options parents have for childcare. My district is 30% Asian American. My partner and our child are Bangladeshi, so I am intimately familiar with issues faced by my district, like affordable and culturally-informed childcare.

Reynolds: I am a legislator and a pediatrician who has cared for thousands of children. My 20+ years practicing in Washington County gives me keen insight into what is and what is not working for Oregon families. My medical expertise informs state policy, including Oregon’s response to COVID and other vital healthcare and childcare policies. Oregon’s behavioral health crisis is one I see play out in my clinic and I have been part of the team that is directing transformational spending to greatly expand access. I will follow through and make sure these investments truly improve the lives of Oregonians.

Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are top-of-mind issues for voters. City, county, nonprofit and state leaders all have roles to play in addressing the twin problems. Thinking specifically about the role the Legislature can play, how do you rate the job lawmakers have done to date and what more, if anything, do you think needs to be done?

Kinzey: We have more work to do. People and families seeking housing services frequently have to wait months before something becomes available. We need to invest more into mixed housing. If housing developments were required to have a certain proportion of units available at each income bracket (housing services, low income, middle income, and upper income) we could tackle the lack of units to resolve homelessness, increase the number of affordable housing options, and not face zoning issues around building entire developments solely for one type of housing.

Reynolds: Results matter and Oregon is failing our homeless neighbors. I am grateful that the legislature prohibited evictions and prioritized rent relief, keeping thousands of Oregonians in their homes during the economic and public health crisis of COVID. And, while our state continues to devote unprecedented resources to expanding short-term and permanent housing, we must do more at every level of government. We need a spectrum of shelter options for those currently sleeping on our sidewalks, we need expanded behavioral health services, and we need many more units of affordable housing. Oregon’s homeless crisis calls for urgent action and better coordination.

Oregon leaders worked across the aisle to pass police reform and accountability laws in 2020 and 2021, then seemed to slow down in 2022 when they chose not to retroactively address non-unanimous jury verdicts. What else needs to be done on criminal justice reform?

Kinzey: Each county needs a community court to address alternative resolutions to misdemeanors. Holding people accountable doesn’t need to cost taxpayers large amounts of money or hinder the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Alternative resolutions help people get needed services and/or provide public service to make amends. We need district attorneys to work with juvenile dependency courts so that resolutions in each case can be reached that benefit the children involved. Currently, DAs can pursue charges and jail time for parents making progress in DHS cases, resulting in children pulled out of their home unnecessarily.

Reynolds: We need to allow for the review and retrial of defendants found guilty through non-unanimous juries. This is a complex issue and must be implemented with precision and thoroughness. We absolutely must guarantee every Oregonian’s Sixth Amendment rights, that is, the right to representation. Our shattered public defender system needs to be repaired. People with behavioral health issues must receive the appropriate trauma-informed care while incarcerated and in settings best suited to their therapeutic needs. In short, we need to work to incarcerate as few Oregonians as possible and to wring out the inequities in our systems.

Students in Oregon, like those in other states, suffered huge academic and emotional setbacks during the pandemic. But there have been no public assessments to show which Oregon students were most severely impacted. Nor has the Oregon Department of Education told the public how districts are spending millions they received to address those problems, nor done an analysis to determine whether the money is being targeted to address the greatest needs. What kind of oversight or policy, if any, would you support to ensure resources are targeted to help students recover post-pandemic?

Kinzey: Transparency. Money allocated to schools needs to have a receipt showing where it went. Far too often students on individual education plans for special education services or needing extra support in school are not able to access the services they need. When they are, it may only address one challenge out of many. As all of our students adjust to a post-pandemic school, we need to ensure that our resources are being spent to support all our children so they can succeed.

Reynolds: We need improved government accountability and transparency which can track the impact of a policy or an expenditure with clearly defined, and regularly updated, metrics and goals. I know from my pediatric practice that distance learning just did not work for some students, despite heroic efforts by teachers, schools, and families. The Oregon Department of Education and individual schools must evaluate and update where our students are and what students need to reach their full potential. Together, we must work to ensure we are delivering on the promise of an equitable, trauma-informed educational system for every Oregon child.

Oregon voters have repeatedly shown they favor limiting the role of money in politics. Yet in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, plans to set limits on campaign contributions have repeatedly hit a dead end. What would you tell voters who might be cynical about lawmakers’ willingness to push back against interests that oppose limits?

Kinzey: My donors are individuals, with the sole exception of the Democratic Party of Oregon who gifted me $1000 worth of services to help me campaign. None of my donors create conflicts of interest. None of my donors oppose campaign finance reform. While Democrats are known to be more progressive, they still benefit from the current system of campaign contributions. It is hard to bite the hand that feeds you. I have no such issue and happily support campaign finance reform with contribution limits and transparency.

Reynolds: I understand voters’ cynicism. It certainly appears that those in power want to preserve the system that may have helped them win in the first place. Still, we need to listen to the voters who overwhelmingly favor campaign finance reform, including limits on campaign contributions. The goal is to level the playing field so that we have a truly representative government with elected leaders from communities that have traditionally been left behind in our current system. Limits on campaign contributions are one important tool to help reach this goal and I will work to advance this policy.

Oregon has hundreds of public records law exemptions, making it one of the less transparent states in the country. Is there any public records exemption you believe should be removed? Or a new public records exemption you believe lawmakers should add?

Kinzey: Some exemptions are necessary, like those regarding privileged communications to clergy or medical professionals. Some are unnecessary, like those for a business’s state tax information in seeking government assistance. I believe the biggest change we can make, other than to eliminate old or wholly unnecessary exemptions, is to expand the number of exemptions that can be disclosed at a judge’s discretion. Some mediations deserve confidentiality. Others have information the public may need to know. Allowing a judge to determine if it should remain confidential is an important safety catch that helps prevent the system from being abused.

Reynolds: Ironically, it is surprisingly difficult to find meaningful analyses of Oregon’s public records exemptions. The list of record exemptions on the Oregon Department of Justice site is 28 pages long! Make no mistake, I believe we need MORE transparency in government, at all levels. Still, my lack of expertise on this topic makes it challenging for me to declare precisely which exemptions should be added or removed, and why. However, I am eager to participate in an open dialogue on this issue in order to advocate for the removal or adjustment of exemptions that interfere with accountability.

If elected, which committee would you most hope to serve on and why?

Kinzey: I am interested in serving on the Behavioral Health, Early Childhood, Housing, Human Services, Judiciary, Revenue, and Rules committees. If I had to pick one, I would say Revenue. All the good intentions and words on a page won’t get far without the proper funding.

Reynolds: I plan to continue my work on the House Behavioral Health and Early Childhood committees as well as the Joint Subcommittee on Ways and Means for Natural Resources. I will seek an appointment to House Health Care. This suite of assignments will enable me to use my expertise to inform healthcare policy, to address the unique needs of children, and to help guide the transformation of services for mental health and substance use disorders. I will continue to bring a public health approach to the climate crisis as a member of the Natural Resources Subcommittee.

Jennifer Kinzey (middle) poses for a photo with Melissa Aguilar and Kylie Cin before making campaign calls.

Much of Oregon lawmakers’ work in the last two years entailed doling out billions in federal aid and windfall state revenues to help with the pandemic response and other state spending priorities. What is one fundamental problem or need in our state that was not addressed during this time? How would you tackle it?

Kinzey: Social services – addiction recovery, domestic violence education, housing, mental health (including access to family therapy), individual education plans, child behavior services, supervised foster care and residential treatment options for foster care – have all been shamefully ignored, if they haven’t had to make cuts to their services through the pandemic. These programs are vital to ensuring Oregonians get the help they need to get back on their feet, especially families. We need to use this money to increase the number of beds or people providing these services so that everyone who wants the help can access it.

Reynolds: I am extremely proud to be part of the legislative session that is guiding Oregon’s recovery from the pandemic, including transformational resources for our behavioral health system, rent relief and housing, bolstering our workforce, expanding childcare, and much more. Now, we must make sure that these dollars do what we promised. We need to restore trust in government agencies and processes through improved transparency and accountability. And, we must repair our inadequate public defender system by devoting long-overdue resources and the sense of urgency needed to recruit, hire, and retain attorneys to defend all Oregonians who need a public defender.

Some Oregon lawmakers rarely if ever grant interviews with journalists seeking to understand their policymaking and how it will impact Oregonians. All-virtual hearings, with no opportunities for impromptu public questions and no opportunity for media questions, made some lawmakers even more inaccessible. If you are elected, how would you interact with journalists?

Kinzey: I believe firmly in transparency. I may be busy but I am happy to invite you along while I work so that the public has transparent access. Public discourse, actually talking to the people experiencing problems and hashing out solutions, that is what I love about politics.

Reynolds: I regularly grant interviews about policies that I am working on and I will continue to do so. I was first elected in 2020, and my work as a legislator has been entirely in the era of remote hearings, so I have little experience with impromptu questioning. I certainly welcome opportunities to discuss current policies and my plans for future bills as well as the thinking behind my support or opposition to various bills and programs.

— Jamie Goldberg; [email protected]; @jamiebgoldberg