Pappy Van Winkle (AKA Kevin Mannix) is Back
Aged and refined after 23 years, Kevin Mannix is off the shelf and back in the game.
At 73 years old, Kevin Mannix is an unlikely rookie in the 82nd Oregon Legislative Assembly. But as Pappy Van Winkle is to bourbon, Mannix is a scarcity among legislators across the country. Both were aged 23 years. The last time he patrolled the legislative chamber Bill Clinton was president, and flip phones were all the rage. Why come off the shelf now?
“My wife and I had a conversation,” Mannix recalled. “We talked about the issues in the news and how nothing seemed to be getting done about them. I offered the usual refrain that ‘somebody needs to do something.’”
Mannix and his wife Susanna talked about how all their kids had grown up, grandchildren were doing fine, and how much he loved the legislative process.
The Legislature had just finished redistricting, and Mannix found himself in a favorable Salem-area district.
“Why don’t you run?” his wife said. Permission granted, Mannix returned to the campaign trail seeking the Republican nomination.
“On the outside, you don’t have the same abilities to make a change that you do on the inside. I love the challenge of the legislature.”
If politicians had trading cards, the Kevin Mannix sets would comprise an entire collection all on its own.
There would be the Mannix Assistant Attorney General Card, the Assistant Attorney General of Guam card, and the State Representative card. Then there is the State Senate, Candidate for Attorney General, Candidate for Governor, Republican Party Chair, and Candidate for Congress. And then back to State Representative. Been there, done that. That’s Kevin Mannix.
This veteran of the political wars is a very personable guy. He can also be disarming. He always looks you straight in the eye. You don’t know if he is intently engaged in the conversation or just trying to see through you.
Returning to the legislative halls after 23 years has taken some adjustment.
“So many members are new. They are refugees of the COVID process,” Mannix said. “They have only served with a Zoom camera. It has reduced human interaction, a key element in getting good things done.”
Mannix chuckled when he recalled the first time he popped in, unannounced, into another member’s office.
“They didn’t know how to react. But I was pleasantly surprised that they were pleasantly surprised. In my first week, I was in committee and realized I had some notes I had left back in my office. I texted my staff, and they came down to the committee members’ door, where I walked down and retrieved them. Members looked surprised, like, ‘can they do that?’ They haven’t learned how to use staff that way.”
“Some newer members are still adjusting to having live witnesses in the hearing room. People are testifying, and they are glued to their computer screens like they are at a college lecture. But I think they will warm up to it. The importance of making eye contact, reading body language.”
He is grateful that some newer members have asked him for advice.
“I tell them to have their questions written out and in front of them. I say, have you talked to the Democrats on the committee? Learn the tools of the process.” Mannix is a master of three-dimensional chess.
During his previous time in the House, Mannix earned the nickname “Amend-O-Mannix” for his propensity to amend others’ bills, especially late in the session.
“I just try to polish them up a little bit,” Mannix grinned. “Sometimes there is an issue that is a good one but doesn’t have enough horsepower on its own to move through the process. So, you try adding it on to another bill. The key is not harming the original bill. I just add a little car onto the train.”
He also is a master at discovering hidden on-ramps to get legislation moving. This is especially important if you have a recalcitrant chair giving an important issue short shrift or even refusing to hold a hearing.
“You need to learn how to mine relating clauses that are in other committees … You find a responsive chair and add a new car onto a train that is moving. You can also find one other member on the committee and issue a minority report. You must use that tool carefully, but if done properly and with wide support in the chamber, you can get your bill right to the floor.”
Nearly two months into the session, he is generally pleased with the level of cooperation.
“I think we reached the peak of partisanship just before the session. Now, Republicans are working really hard to be cautious in their responses, and Democrats are trying just as hard to be courteous. We aren’t in the trenches here. There is a real effort to reach out and engage.”
Mannix points to homelessness, housing, drug addiction, and mental health as issues the assembly must face. He says a broad-based system is needed to address these problems.
“We can’t keep facilitating things like homelessness and drugs on the street. We need to strengthen and support law enforcement in dealing with these issues.”
Mannix pointed to education as another area of concern and spoke passionately about ensuring every student has access to a robust financial literacy curriculum.
“It is a critical element in self-sufficiency as an adult. We need a buffet of opportunities. Let’s reward excellence.”
He would also like to refocus the state on a better way to fund major transportation projects. He says that with so much political power residing in the Oregon and Washington delegation in Congress, it is past time to use that leverage.
“Oregon and Washington should join together and, with all the federal money out there, push for a grand Pacific Northwest infrastructure package,” he said. “Both states would benefit.”
When asked whether he has any other creative ideas, a twinkle comes to his eye. Twenty-three years have subdued the harshness and enhanced his smoothness. Politics, as in bourbon, rewards patience with refinement.