Oregon state treasurer Tobias Read announced his candidacy for governor Sept. 27, a day when the long-expected news of his arrival in the race was far overshadowed by the Legislature’s vote on redistricting.
It’s hard not to see that as representative of the steady if unspectacular plough horse of a politician he’s been.
But it also offered a contrast. While one of his leading opponents for the job, House Speaker Tina Kotek, faced bitter reproaches from Republicans (and passed highly contested new district maps), Read offered himself up as someone who is widely viewed to have made no enemies.
“Tobias is that increasingly rare leader who is always looking to build consensus,” says his friend and supporter Jules Bailey, a former Multnomah County commissioner who served in the Legislature with Read. “He makes decisions based on careful analysis and doesn’t make enemies. It’s not always flashy, but it’s needed.”
His critics say he hasn’t taken a strong enough position on anything for long enough to provoke a fight.
“The guy is a wet noodle,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director of the nonprofit Oregon Wild, which tangled with Read over his initial vote to sell Elliott State Forest. “If you’re drawing up a list of the most effective Oregon politicians, no one would put Tobias Read in the top five.” (Pedery favors turning Elliott into a state conservation area and is skeptical of Read’s current concept for the forest, which also still lacks funding, Pedery says.)
For his part, Read agrees that he’s uncontroversial—and says the state could use a consensus builder.
His top three priorities for Oregon—pandemic response, child welfare and clean energy—won’t stir harsh debates. But in an interview this week with WW, Read did offer some unexpected opinions, including a break from the incumbent on what institutions should have reopened first from COVID lockdowns.
WW: Oregon has done relatively well at managing the public health consequences of the pandemic. So why are Gov. Kate Brown’s poll numbers so low?
Tobias Read: What people want is steadiness. And I don’t think people feel good about kind of lurching from thing to thing. Having a consistent vision for where we want Oregon to go would help everyone in Oregon a whole lot.
If the governor offered her endorsement, would you accept it?
We’re trying to build a coalition of people who have similar interests in the long-run future of the state. There’s room for everybody who wants to be part of that.
Oregon has a big unfunded pension liability. How big a threat is that to the state’s economic future?
At the treasury, what we do, of course, is to focus on generating returns. And we do a good job of that. The Public Employee Retirement System is a proxy for what it costs to employ public servants. There are other ways to have that discussion as well, such as health care.
So you’d be willing to discuss cutting public employee health care costs?
I didn’t say cutting costs. The goal would be to deliver things in a more efficient manner.
As a legislator, you pushed protecting public ownership of the Elliott State Forest. When you became treasurer, you voted to sell the forest. Now you’re trying to protect it again. Please explain.
What we were trying to do all along is to create a solution that would stick. I offered amendments to the proposed sale that weren’t accepted. Protecting the forest has always been a consistent goal for me.
But then you felt you had to go with the plan?
In my judgment, yes. As a fiduciary, I didn’t think that we could uphold our fiduciary obligations without a viable alternative in place and developed.
Since then, we worked diligently to create a different path. That’s the one that we’re on now—that would allow Oregon State University to manage a research forest. That would allow the common school fund to be kept whole. So my goal was always consistent.
Can you say something nice about your primary opponent, House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland)?
She’s very smart and incredibly committed to the things that she believes in.
Why would you make a better governor than her?
The next governor needs to be somebody who can bring people together to take on these incredibly challenging circumstances that we face, with a focus on execution and delivering.
What’s something significant you’ve delivered?
Oregon Saves, which is the first opt-out retirement plan in the country. It provides a plan for folks in the private sector who don’t otherwise have an option to save for retirement. The process of passing that into law had a lot of twists and turns. It’s indicative of the style that I would bring to the governor’s office.
If you were elected governor, would you support or oppose expansion of Interstate 5 at the Rose Quarter?
It depends on the circumstances. The pieces that spring to mind are what safety effects an expansion has, and what opportunities are there for redevelopment of the historic neighborhoods.
What about congestion pricing?
It should be part of the conversation. I would definitely want to advance the notion of paying for your road use.
As a member of the State Land Board, you allowed Facebook to drill underneath Oregon beaches to connect a telecommunications line from Asia. It’s gone badly. Did you do your job as a steward of Oregon’s natural resources?
I’m not happy with how Facebook has conducted itself. That’s why I went to the Legislature and testified in support of a bill that Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis) passed. The tools that are available to the land board and state government did not contemplate Facebook, or anything like it.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has been one of your largest individual contributors. Have you shared your concerns with her?
Not to her directly. I did attempt to raise it through Facebook’s representatives here.
What grade would you assign to the current state of Oregon’s K-12 schools?
Incomplete. We could be doing a lot more. One example: We shouldn’t be limited to an academic schedule that’s based on agriculture. We can be smart about how we look at lengthening the school year and supporting teachers to do that.
With the benefit of hindsight, did Oregon close schools too soon?
I’m certainly not saying we did something reckless, but I think we could have been really clear that our No. 1 goal needs to be to get students back to school safely.
We could have done more from the start to recognize what was going to be needed to get to technology and have testing capacity in place. Opening bars and restaurants before schools, that’s not ideal.
So you would have reopened schools before bars and restaurants?