Meet the guitar shop owner who got Salem millions to help with housing and homelessness

Justin Martin. (Courtesy/Justin Martin)

In the back room of a downtown Salem guitar shop, Justin Martin makes calls to secure millions of dollars for Salem.

Martin, who’s going into his fifth year lobbying for the city, is also a part owner of Guitar Castle and has an “On Air” sign he turns on when he’s working with legislators virtually.

During the 2021 session, Martin played a role in securing the city of Salem $13 million for homeless sheltering, police body cameras and the city’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program.

Martin is going into his 26th year representing the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

The 52-year-old was born and raised in Salem, graduating from McKay High School.

He was drafted out of high school to be a baseball player for a minor league team under the California Angels franchise.

The biography on his government relations business website, Perseverance Strategies, reads “Even though Justin set an impressive mark in 1988, leading the Northwest League in wild pitches, the lure of fame and making millions of dollars as a major league pitcher couldn’t overcome his desire to work in government.”

Soon after he returned to Salem, he walked into Guitar Castle to purchase a guitar.

He walked up to the counter with a guitar and told the owner, Tim Knight, that he was the son of his high school friend. Knight and the senior Martin had walked together at graduation.

“I said ‘Well, what the hell are you doing?’ Put your money away, dude,” Knight recalled.

Martin said five years ago Knight, now 70, was talking about retiring and needed to figure out the future of the store.

“Now all of the sudden I’m half owner,” Martin quipped.

More than 25 years after Martin walked into the store, the pair share a workspace. In the back of Guitar Castle, located in the former site of Ranch Records, that’s where calls are made and texts are sent to move legislation along.

Knight likes to call Martin a humanitarian. He said he does every activity he gets into to the fullest: baseball, guitar, lobbying, golf.

“I just noticed that he’s not monkeying around. He’s not just halfway doing things,” he said.

The guitar store isn’t the only other business he’s involved in. Four years ago, his father died from Lou Gehrig’s disease and Martin took over some administrative tasks of his father’s metal fabrication business, Zephyr Engineering.

He said he created a 401k program, implemented vacation policies and brought down employee’s health insurance deductibles.

Martin got his start in the legislature in 1995, working as a legislative assistant to State Representative Terry Thompson.

Martin, who’s a member of the Grand Ronde tribe, said the tribe wanted to build their own government relations program in-house as the Spirit Mountain Casino opened that year.

In a 2004 article, Thompson was quoted in the Stateman Journal saying “I just thought he was so sharp and was super-talented. I knew within a short time that he was a self-motivated person and was going to be successful in whatever he did.”

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett has known Martin since that time.

“He’s a lot of fun, he’s very funny,” he said.

After the 1995 session, Martin worked as intergovernmental affairs director at the tribe for seven years.

That program was nationally recognized by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development as one of the most progressive in the country.

He later got his master’s degree from Harvard Kennedy School.

Martin said Grand Ronde was one of the first tribes to focus on lobbying at the state level. Now, there are five tribes in Oregon with lobbyists, he said.

He pointed to SB 770, passed in 2001, as one of the more memorable ones he worked on.

It established a state-tribal government-to-government relations law that created a framework for communication between state agencies and tribes.

Martin said he likes having the opportunity to educate legislators on the benefits his clients lend to the city they’re in.

His past clients include Portland Public Schools, Defenders of Wildlife and Boys and Girls Club of Salem.  

“Interests I feel good about representing,” he said.

Martin said the core principles on how he lobbies revolve around communication, education and cooperation.

Prior to the pandemic, he said he liked to sit outside the Ways and Means Committee so legislators would see him every day.

“My (modus operandi) is not to be in the basement,” he said.

Martin, who’s owned his government relations business since 2004, said lobbying has become more and more difficult, and not just because of Covid.

“I just think even pre-pandemic, I’m seeing politics through a lens now. Team A and Team B. Unfortunately, I think that makes for less opportunities to create legislation that benefits everybody,” he said.

The bulk of the money Salem got this year, $11 million, will go toward homelessness.

Martin said legislators coming from other cities can drive into Salem and see how visible the homelessness problem is.

“They can see when they come into town. They see what’s going on around the city,” he said.

Martin said it’s helpful to have Senate President Peter Courtney be from the city he’s representing. He also said House Speaker Tina Kotek made homelessness and housing a priority this session.

“That’s a big issue for us. Timing certainly aligned on that,” he said.

Martin said he enjoys using his expertise, knowing it benefits where he lives and works every day.

But he said despite the influx in money, implementation takes time.

“There’s a tremendous amount of need. That amount of money, while it’s a wonderful amount of money, that’s really not going to solve our homelessness problem. I’m always in this ‘let’s continue’ mode. It’s hard to celebrate when you’ve still got a hell of a problem,” he said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!