This is part of a series of stories on the candidates running in the May 17 primary election. Ballots will be mailed to voters April 27.
After eight years of being represented by Jim Lewis, voters in West Salem are set to pick a new city councilor in the May 17 primary election.
Micki Varney, a salmon biologist, and Chris Cummings, a CEO for a local tech company, are competing to represent Ward 8.
Because of Lewis’ early resignation in February to spend more time with his family, Varney is essentially entering election season as an incumbent.
More:City Council appoints Micki Varney to serve as West Salem councilor for remainder of 2022
She and Cummings both applied to replace Lewis for the remainder of 2022. After a selection process and round of interviews, Salem City Council unanimously voted in late March to appoint her to finish out Lewis’ term.
Biologist wants to protect parks, help homeless
Varney said the appointment comes after a history of trying to improve the communities she’s called home, tracing back to her 10th birthday when she organized a litter clean-up with her friends.
“It was just nice to be able to contribute something and get folks together to do something that was helping to make it better,” she said. “I don’t know why I had that drive in me. But it continued on in my life.”
Varney went on to work as a science teacher, find a career as a salmon biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, serve as a city councilor in Dayton, Washington, and volunteer with the Salem Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, West Salem Neighborhood Association, Service Employees International Union Local 503 and American Association of University Women.
Varney ran against Lewis in 2018 and narrowly lost.
During this election, she is championing the protection of parks and green spaces and helping families enjoy the outdoor spaces within the community.
On a recent visit to Brush College Park, she said the park highlighted what she both loved and wanted to improve about parks in Salem.
The park has towering oak trees, protected wetlands and a criss-cross of trails alongside Gibson Creek. Varney said she’d like the trails to be more accessible, less overgrown and more connected. She said she is already working to obtain grants and with a local group to create a smaller disc golf course at the park.
Other key issues in her campaign include addressing homelessness, promoting sustainable growth, expanding local services in West Salem and relieving congestion on Wallace Road with the development of Marine Drive.
Homelessness remains the biggest issue for Salem residents and topped the list of every candidate vying for council.
Varney said she’d like to see more investment and momentum on projects that have been successful, such as the recent creation of micro shelter villages to help people transition into permanent housing, a navigation center, affordable housing and a safety response team.
For many in West Salem, traffic congestion can be a pain point. Varney said supporting small business growth on the west side and the development of Marine Drive would help reduce the need to travel over the bridges and relieve congestion.
Varney said her experience sets her apart from her opponent.
“We have a lot of the same goals,” she said, regarding Cummings. “And we even talk about similar ways of addressing them. I think one of the things that makes a big difference between us is experience and understanding what the issues are in West Salem. I have a lot more experience and, to me, that makes a big difference because I can ask the questions.”
Business owner highlights homelessness, crime, housing
Cummings is the first to admit he has little political experience.
The born-and-raised Salem resident took over his father’s tech business decades ago and now owns Petra Technologies. He’s attended but not been involved with his neighborhood association and focuses on school involvement and connecting to local businesses and neighbors.
He said his experience as a business leader would bring a needed perspective to the council.
“City Council is out of touch with the community,” Cummings said. “And I think the community is saying we need to change.”
He said optimism in the city is declining and West Salem’s quality of life is being challenged.
Cummings said he originally had no plans to run for council.
“What sparked my interest is when I started talking to my friends and neighbors,” he said. “We’re like, ‘The city’s going downhill.'”
They said someone like him needed to run for office.
Cummings said he doesn’t think someone needs to be a seasoned politician to run for office. His work has tied him to other small businesses and events like the Salem Art Fair and World Beat Festival.
He highlighted homelessness, crime and affordable housing as key issues facing the city.
“They’re all connected,” he said. “The homelessness pairs up with crime; the affordable housing — or lack of affordable housing — feeds into the homelessness issue.”
He said he supports the use of micro shelters but in a limited capacity. He doesn’t want to see too much focus and money put into the effort and doesn’t think each ward in the city needs to host a village. Projects like the upcoming navigation center, a resource center and shelter planned in Salem, would be vital to getting people connected to services, he added.
He said the lack of affordable housing could be partially blamed on having too many roadblocks to development, like the fees to even get land for housing shovel-ready and lengthy debate at council over tree removal.
To counteract crime, Cummings said, the city needs to hire 60 more officers to be more visible and have faster response times. He likened the perceived uptick in crime to parents refusing to discipline kids who run amok. A more present police force would mean crime would go down, Cummings said.
According to uniform crime reporting submitted by the city to the FBI, overall crime was down in Salem in 2020. Some crimes, like vehicle theft and arson, saw increases, while most others, including burglary, homicide and rape, saw decreases.
He also said West Salem faces a serious congestion problem and thinks a third bridge would alleviate the long waits people face when traveling over the Willamette River.
Cummings supports the plan outlined in the Salem River Crossing. The effort to build the bridge died in 2019 following a council vote.
More:The third bridge is dead; long live the third bridge?
He criticized Varney for not supporting the project and said the city would only continue to grow, years of research had gone into the crafting of the project and failing to act would only postpone having a solution any time soon
“If you don’t even move forward, you’re putting off another problem for another 20 years,” he said.
Varney countered that the Salem River Crossing would have only reduced commute times by a couple of minutes if it had been constructed 10 years ago and would have destroyed 100 homes and businesses.
“If we pursued constructing it now with the increased traffic load we see in Salem, it would be a waste of our money,” she said. “I cannot see paying over $500 million for a project that does not solve our traffic problem. I want something that works.”
Instead, she said, she supports another project — a regional beltway diverting outside traffic away from the current bridges and to new bridges north and south of the city — constructed in partnership with Yamhill, Polk and Marion counties. About 67% of traffic going across Salem’s bridges comes from outside the area, making congestion a regional issue, she said.
Campaigns garner thousands in donations
Despite record-breaking amounts of campaign funds flooding into recent council elections, with tens of thousands of dollars from special interest groups and political action committees, this year is already on pace to beat previous campaign contribution records.
In Ward 8, Cummings’ candidate committee reported $31,450 in contributions, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. He said the bulk of donations has come from individuals.
The biggest single donations include $2,500 each from Mountain West Investment Corporation and the political-action committees Mid-Valley Affordable Housing Coalition and Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee.
Varney’s candidate committee reported $9,873 in contributions. Her biggest donations have come from individuals along with $1,750 from the political-action committee Citizen Action for Political Education.
Learn more about Varney online at mickiforsalem.com and facebook.com/mickiforsalem
Learn more about Cummings online at chrisforsalem.com and facebook.com/ChrisForSalem
For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at email@example.com, call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth.