PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Months ahead of Oregon’s Democratic primary, many believed the race was former House Speaker Tina Kotek’s to lose.
The progressive’s political resume, leadership experience and support from colleagues had the Portland lawmaker in an enviable position.
But Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read hopes to capitalize on voter unrest and a seeming tack back to moderates when Democrats choose their candidate May 17 for the state’s highest office.
Read, Kotek’s most prominent primary opponent, has gained traction over the past two months. The 46-year-old has been endorsed by two former Oregon governors, attracted some supporters of Nicholas Kristof — a former New York Times columnist who was declared ineligible to run for governor due to not meeting residency requirements — and has placed part of the blame for Oregon’s problems directly on Kotek.
Christopher Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, says recent polling shows that the May 17 primary is close with Read within “striking distance” of Kotek and more than half of Democrats remain undecided.
Winning the Democratic primary usually means an almost certain victory in the fall, as a Republican hasn’t been governor in Oregon in 35 years. But this year former longtime Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson is running as an independent and expected to be a strong candidate in November. Johnson doesn’t have to compete in a primary.
Many Oregonians are critical of the handling of the pandemic, the homeless crisis, school closures, lack of affordable housing, increasing gun violence and a growing political divide.
During a recent debate both candidates were asked to use one word or phrase to describe Oregon right now. Kotek said, “It is always beautiful.” Read responded, “Strained.”
Read says in conversations with voters he can hear their “visceral sense of anger, dissatisfaction and anxiety” that stems from a “lack of follow through”, including delays in unemployment benefits, dispersing rental assistance checks and the rollout of the state’s long-anticipated paid family and medical leave program.
“You don’t get to just take credit for the good things and not take some accountability for what’s delayed,” Read said to Kotek during a recent debate. Kotek rebutted by saying state agencies are overseen by Gov. Kate Brown, who can’t run again due to term limits.
Stout says Read is trying to position himself as “an outsider,” a move that could benefit him as many residents are not happy with the status quo in Oregon. Oregonians displeasure with current politics has been evidenced in Brown’s historically low approval ratings. Opponents of Kotek have dubbed her as “Kate Brown 2.0,” linking similarities — both are liberal women who have represented Portland and identify as LGBTQ.
“To say, ‘Look we’ve kind of gone through this process before. As an outsider I can actually change things.’ That could be effective,” Stout said.
Read, who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Boise, Idaho, got his first taste of living in Oregon when he attended Willamette University in Salem. There he joined campaigns and staff for local lawmakers.
In 1999, he moved to Washington D.C., where he worked in the U.S. Treasury Department as executive assistant to Sheryl Sandberg, who at the time was chief of staff for then-Secretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers.
Sandberg is now the chief operating officer of Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.
Read returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2001 to earn an MBA at the University of Washington. He says the degree helped him understand how to marry the interests of private enterprise and government.
Despite presenting himself as an outsider, Read has spent years immersed in Oregon politics.
The Democrat won his first legislative race in 2006 and served in the state House of Representatives for a decade, where he focused on economic matters — sitting on the House Revenue Committee, chairing the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development, elected to Speaker Pro Tempore and a member of the primary budget writing body for the Legislature.
“He’s shown throughout his career that he can do big things. From passing full-day kindergarten to implementing the first of its kind state retirement savings program, Tobias has delivered,” said Sheryl WuDunn, the wife of ineligible gubernatorial candidate Kristof.
In 2016 Read was elected state treasurer, where he serves as the custodian of public funds, chief investment officer and oversaw growth of assets owned by Oregon’s public retirees from $73 billion in 2017 to more than $100 billion in 2022.
Read said his legislative and executive office experience sets him apart from other gubernatorial candidates. “I think that’s another really important distinction and contrast in the race,” he said.
Former colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, have described him as hardworking, mild-mannered and pragmatic.
While Kotek has received significantly more endorsements — including from a third of current Oregon lawmakers, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, unions and large organizations such as Planned Parenthood — Read got the coveted nod from Barbara Roberts, Oregon’s first female governor. She says the state “needs a governor with a statewide record of tackling tough issues.”
In the eyes of some, Read has also positioned himself as more moderate-minded.
The split between progressives and moderates within the party has become increasingly evident.
The battle lines drawn during the 2020 primaries — largely between liberals like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren and a group of moderates from which President Joe Biden emerged — continue to shadow the party in 2021 elections, specifically in some of the nation’s most liberal cities, including Seattle and New York, progressive candidates stumbled.
Stout says although progressives and moderates have different names, they are nearly the same in other ways with “very similar” voting records and ideals — as seen with Read and Kotek.
When it comes to the homeless crisis both say they would be more aggressive in addressing the issue, expand shelter availability and make available more affordable housing options. Both say it is important to adequately fund police. Both are adamant in protecting access to abortions. And both take strong stances with ambitious goals when it comes to climate change.
When asked by The Associated Press if Read identifies himself as moderate he replied, “I am a Democrat. I am happy to let others describe the positioning or the label associated with that.”
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.