Text Messages Show the Pressure Placed on Oregon’s State Treasurer to Keep the Elliott State Forest as Public Land

Environmental activists planned to challenge Tobias Read with a primary opponent in 2020.

Last week, State Treasurer Tobias Read flipped.

On Feb. 14, the Democrat had joined Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, in voting to sell the Elliott State Forest. Their votes outnumbered that of the third member of the State Land Board, Gov. Kate Brown, who opposed the sale.

But last week, Read announced he'd changed his mind and could now vote to keep the forest publicly owned, saying Brown had presented him with "a viable alternative."

Read says rather than caving to political pressure, he responded to Brown's office showing him the state could find a financially responsible way to transfer ownership of the Elliott from one state entity to another.

Environmental leaders are skeptical of that explanation. They think pressure from Oregonians furious at his February vote for the Elliott sale made the difference.

"His office was essentially locked down for a couple of weeks," says Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild. "The blowback was far more than he expected."

Related: We journeyed deep inside the Elliott State Forest, before it is lost. See the photo essay.

The support of the environmental lobby has always been crucial to Read.

In November, the then-five-term state representative from Beaverton eked out a victory in the treasurer's race against Republican Jeff Gudman, winning by just 3 percentage points. Read won with strong support from environmentalists, who'd applauded a 2015 bill he introduced that would have blocked future sales of state lands such as the Elliott.

"Because the Treasurer is a member of the State Land Board, he will be in a position to make sure our state-owned lands are protected," wrote Greg Macpherson, a former member of the PAC for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, in an Aug. 14 email to voters.

But after Read voted to sell the forest, the OLCV's political action committee erupted.

"To say that we were shocked is an understatement," the league's PAC board wrote in a February statement. "Treasurer Read's actions on February 14th—Oregon's Birthday—are in stark contrast to his record as a legislator, as well as how he presented himself to the OLCV PAC Board during our endorsement process."

The group urged its followers to hammer Read on social media using the Twitter hashtags #betrayedmyvote and #earnitback.

The response was savage. "We need to make sure he never gets re-elected to any public office again," wrote Donald Fotentot in a typical Facebook comment. "Time to play hardball!"

Oregon Wild, OLCV and other groups deluged Read's office with calls, visits and emails. The league's Facebook posts were shared 1,700 times.

WW obtained text messages between Read's chief of staff, Dmitri Palmateer, and OLCV executive director Doug Moore through a public records request. These messages display the tension, and the stakes for Read: Environmentalists could run a Democratic opponent to his left in the 2020 primary.

"I keep hearing rumors that you are looking to primary Tobias," Palmateer wrote March 17. "I can't believe that you'd actually engage in that conversation."

Moore replied to the accusation with a non-denial denial: "That's crazy. I told people literally today that let's talk about now not three years from now."

Palmateer didn't buy that.

"I've heard from three sources that OLCV is actively talking primary challenge," he wrote. "Someone said you said if there was $1 million [available] you'd look to a recall."

"If bad things happen, he would probably see a challenge," Moore conceded.

On March 28, Read announced he was open to Brown's proposal to keep the Elliott public. He says it was her proposal, rather than his position, that changed.

"I've been consistent throughout," he says. "I've always favored public ownership. Adding some urgency has produced more attention and diligence about how we do that."

The Land Board will next consider the Elliott on May 9.