Two Candidates for Governor Turn Over Their Tax Returns. Betsy Johnson Declines.

Oregon gubernatorial hopefuls have historically disclosed their personal returns.

Betsy Johnson (Illustration by Mick Hangland-Skill / Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Two of the three candidates for Oregon governor this year have turned over their tax returns at WW’s request.

The third, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who is running unaffiliated with any party, declined to do so.

“Betsy has always filled out the required financial disclosure forms to the Legislature and will continue to do so as governor,” says Johnson campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Sitton. “That is the sum total of the public’s interest. Betsy believes that whether you are voting for governor or running for governor, you continue to have a constitutional right to privacy, which most people value.”

In making that choice, Johnson deviated from recent norms in Oregon and across the country.

In 2018, for instance, incumbent Gov. Kate Brown and Republican challenger Knute Buehler both shared their tax returns with the press, and in 2014, incumbent Gov. John Kitzhaber and Republican nominee Dennis Richardson shared their returns.

Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College, says such transparency has been the standard for at least 50 years.

“Certainly since Nixon, it’s been a tradition at the presidential level, because of a desire for transparency, to avoid perceived conflict of interest and, really, just to reassure the public,” Gronke says.

There has been one major exception, of course: Candidate and then President Donald Trump refused to turn over his tax returns in 2016 and again in 2020. Gronke says that refusal may have emboldened candidates in the governor’s race in Virginia last year and in Michigan this year.

In Oregon, the Democratic nominee for governor, former House Speaker Tina Kotek, and the Republican nominee, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, agreed to share the past three years of their tax returns.

Kotek provided state and federal returns; Drazan provided only her federal returns.

The returns show that Kotek and her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, a social worker, jointly earned an average of $107,037 a year in gross income for the past three years. Their income remained stable over that time, dipping slightly last year when Kotek resigned her position as speaker to run for governor.

Drazan, like Kotek, served as a lawmaker for the three years of returns she provided. Her husband, Dan Drazan, is a partner at Dunn Carney, a midsized Portland law firm. Their joint gross income was considerably higher, averaging $375,325 a year for the past three years. Reflecting the disastrous economy in 2020, however, the Drazans’ income showed far more variability than Kotek and Wilson’s: It sank from $428,109 in 2019 to $306,622 in 2020.

Dick Solomon, a certified public accountant who has served on the Oregon Investment Council and the Oregon Lottery Commission, reviewed the candidates’ returns at WW’s request.

“There’s nothing unusual or surprising in either of the returns,” Solomon says. “Dan Drazan earns a good living as a law firm partner, and the return shows they are saving a lot for retirement.”

The Drazans did not provide the schedules to the returns that would show itemized deductions, but Solomon says the amount they claimed was normal.

“If I worked for the IRS or the Oregon Department of Revenue, there’s nothing in either of these sets of returns that would make me want to audit them,” he adds.

Solomon says one of the benefits of candidates disclosing their tax returns is that voters can see where a candidate’s income comes from.

“I think the public is entitled to know that the senator from West Virginia [Joe Manchin] has substantial investments in coal, for instance,” Solomon says. “The decisions he might make in office could affect his wealth.”

Solomon notes that neither the Drazans nor Kotek and Wilson reported any significant investment income, relying almost entirely on their paychecks.

That’s not true for Johnson, who hails from a wealthy Central Oregon timber family.

Johnson, like Kotek and Drazan, did submit the statement of economic interest required of many public officials in 2021. (She didn’t file one in 2022 because she resigned from the Legislature last year and isn’t officially a candidate until the secretary of state approves the signatures she needed to make the ballot.)

Johnson’s 2021 disclosure form shows that her husband, John Helm, has an ownership stake in five companies; that the couple owns seven properties in addition to their primary residence; and that she has trusts and an extensive portfolio of blue chip stocks.

Johnson reported that 31 of those stocks generated at least $1,000 of dividend income each in 2021.

Many of her holdings have significant legislative interests in Oregon. Three of them—Boeing, Global Partners (an oil transportation company) and Weyerhaeuser—have extensive operations in the state. Global, which has an oil terminal in Johnson’s former Senate district, has given her campaign $160,000.

Without Johnson’s tax returns, it is impossible to know how much income she received from those three companies’ stocks or any of the other stocks she owns.

(Kotek’s SEI contains no information not on her tax returns. Drazan’s shows that she and her husband own a beach house in Lincoln County but nothing else.)

“Democracy depends on an informed electorate, which makes transparency critical,” says Kate Titus of Common Cause Oregon, a watchdog group. “Candidate tax returns help uncover potential conflicts of interest and red flags.”

But Titus says the trend of candidates declining to share their tax returns is a bad precedent: “Clearly, this should no longer be voluntary, because that just allows the scofflaws to evade this public trust.”

Gronke, who studies voting patterns and trust in government and the electoral process, agrees.

“It’s disappointing to hear that Betsy Johnson is unwilling to release her returns,” he says. “It’s not a requirement, but it’s something most candidates have done.”

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