The news last week that Oregon Republican Party chairman Kevin Mannix gets paid to lobby for laws designed to make it harder to sue corporations got treated almost like an afterthought.
But Mannix's lobbying makes an intriguing political play heading into next election year. While building up chits with business could help his all-but-announced second run for governor, doing lobbyist duty now could hurt Mannix's credibility-and that of the state GOP.
"That's kind of unusual to sort of be a combination chair and lobbyist," says Bob Stern, a California-based political-ethics expert with the nonpartisan nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies. "The bottom-line question is, who's he representing? And can legislators and the public distinguish them?"
Mannix says he formed the Oregon Litigation Fairness Project with two other lobbyists to "make the litigation system fair for all concerned." And he did so only as "Citizen Mannix," not as party chair-a distinction he says he makes to lawmakers he now lobbies. He does not get paid as party chair and won't say how much he makes from lobbying.
"Tort reform" first arose in the '80s when tobacco companies, insurance companies and HMOs formed groups to limit people's ability to sue them. As for who's behind this Oregon effort, beyond some unnamed "business groups" Mannix won't say. "That's one reason why you create an organization sometimes,'' Mannix says. "People want to come together, and they don't want to publicize themselves."
Most of the bills pushed by Mannix received public hearings last week in Salem. Some would discourage lawsuits, encouraging settlements rather than trials; one would limit Oregonians' ability to sue pharmaceutical companies over products with unforeseen side effects-a proposal opposed by consumer-protection attorneys for the state Department of Justice.
"It would basically give immunity to the drug companies from being sued by people that are injured by any of their products," says Maribeth Healey of Oregonians for Health Security.
Mannix essentially conceded in an interview that he's running for governor in 2006. And it's clear his advocacy puts him in a position to enlist support from large corporations for his campaign.
The GOP boss says his lobbying keeps him engaged. "I'm not about to go off and become a hermit for a few months and then suddenly appear on the governor's-race racetrack," he says. But he also admits there are risks.
Mannix has taken heat before for profiting off political work, including when he was a lawmaker. And his current positions-along with his mysterious clients-have Democrats salivating and Republicans who support candidate Ron Saxton fuming.
"This is the one that's over the line," says state Democratic Party spokesman Kelly Steele.
Mannix seems to be retreating from most of the bills, saying they often didn't come out as intended: "I think some of these ideas need to be dramatically modified, and I think some of them need to be backed away from."
But how can people avoid linking these bills, the Republican Party and the clients paying Mannix?
"I think this is the challenge we face in a complex society," says Mannix. "Every legislator that I deal with on legislation understands the distinction."