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Democratic nominee Ricki Ruiz hopes to bring diverse, youthful vision to open Salem seat

COURTESY PHOTO: RICKI RUIZ - Ricki RuizWatching the results of the 2016 presidential election alongside his concerned loved ones and neighbors spurred a 26-year-old Rockwood native to seek a seat in Salem.

Ricki Ruiz said there was a lot of fear and turmoil amongst the local Hispanic community about their safety and future in this country after President Donald Trump was elected. His mother, who is undocumented, refused to go to church or grocery shopping because she believed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would take her into custody.

"My mom was too scared to go to the bus stop because she didn't know what would happen," Ruiz said. "We would go to the grocery store at 1 a.m. because she thought ICE didn't do graveyard shifts and it was the only time she could be safe."

The city of Gresham employee's first step into public office was a successful run to serve on the Reynolds School Board. Now he is looking to step into the soon-to-be vacant House District 50 position as the Democratic candidate.

"When the opportunity came up, I met with a lot of people and organizations," Ruiz said. "I want to make sure we change who is representing our community because I fit the demographic and age of the people living here."

Despite his age, Ruiz already has garnered a long-list of accomplishments in Gresham.

"I don't think age plays a factor — I have been involved in local government for 8 years," he said.

In 2014, Ruiz co-founded the Rockwood Initiative, an organization focused on community development in the Rockwood Neighborhood. One of the group's accomplishments was the creation of mini-futsal pitches that drew community praise and serve more than 10,000 youth and families.

Ruiz works for the city of Gresham as the community services coordinator. He oversees the Neighborhood Watch Program, Youth Recreation Programming and the Youth Advisory Council.

He was elected to the Reynolds School Board in 2017, and then re-elected to a second term in 2019. He has prioritized the voices of students and teachers while on the board.

"I have a desire, willingness, energy and dedication to the community," Ruiz said.

What Gresham needs

Much of Ruiz's goals as a candidate are drawn from his own experiences living in Rockwood.

His family was always on the brink of homelessness; he dealt with shortfalls in public education; and his loved ones struggled to receive healthcare services and other benefits needed to thrive.

His first step, if elected, would be to bring more transparency to Salem. He wants to stay in contact with constituents through newsletters in English and Spanish, as well as coffee meet-ups across the community.

He also didn't downplay the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, adjusting all of his plans to account for a global crisis that struck after he claimed a victory in the primary.

"We have to keep as many local small businesses open and running," Ruiz said.

Ruiz said that while Gresham has a small police department, it's worth investigating where the budget is being spent and focus on community building efforts. He pointed to the hate crime that occurred in Gresham four years ago as an example of racism reaching our community — when a couple connected to a white supremacy group ran over and killed Larnell Bruce, a Black teen, outside a 7-Eleven in Rockwood.

"I would work with (Gresham Council), mayor, police and fire to move toward building a system that is not racist or prejudiced," Ruiz said. "We need to promote community safety and avoid the militarization of our officers."

Ruiz stressed that he would work hand-in-hand with city leadership to ensure Gresham remains vibrant and welcoming to all kinds of people. Part of that would include bolstering a parks system that had been withering from a lack of stable funding.

"Gresham is the fourth largest city in Oregon and we don't have a parks and recreation department," Ruiz said. "We have one of the youngest demographics in the state and there are limited things to do."

He said the city doesn't have to wait on COVID-19, as there are creative ways to find funding for programs. Ruiz wants to offer more online classes, focused on teaching families skills to get them through the pandemic.

Ruiz brought nine futsal courts into the community, and as much as he loves to promote soccer, his next project will be the construction of basketball courts. In 2021, he plans on resurfacing and improving basketball facilities that have been worn down through the years.

"Sports bring people together," Ruiz said.

The new/improved courts will start in Rockwood Central, Red Sunset Park and Pat Pfeifer Park, with more on the horizon. He also has been dialed in on education needs, especially with children going through the uncertainty of at-home learning. He said the first step is trying to find a way to keep kids safe, as their home life may not be the safest environment.

Ruiz said this upcoming election is a crucial time for Gresham voters to let their voices be heard.

"I am ready to represent my constituents," he said.

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