Activist state

State Treasurer Tobias Read is deliberately moving but insists he’s the change Oregon needs

Tobias Read hopes to overcome record voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the May 17 primary.

Read, who is halfway through his second term as state treasurer, is certainly trying to position himself as an outsider, criticizing schools for not reopening quickly enough and elected officials at all levels for not taking action. with enough urgency on homelessness.

“Oregon needs new leadership and direction,” Read said in his campaign materials. “We can’t afford the same in Salem.”

It’s a tough sell from a man who has held public office since 2007. A sober workhorse of a politician, Read saw his main challenger, former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D- Portland), grabbing endorsements from major labor unions as well as environmental, reproductive choice and other progressive groups.

Although pollsters, such as John Horvick of Portland’s DHM research, say it’s Kotek’s race to lose, some leading Democrats, including former governors. Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber — endorsed Read, a business-friendly moderate less enslaved than Kotek to the public servants’ unions that dominate Oregon’s Democratic politics.

Read wins applause from all sides as a good guy who took care to maintain good relationships. But he also gained a reputation for being driven more by his ambitions for the next office than by any particular vision of how to make Oregon a better place.

Bill Parish, a Portland investment adviser who oversees the treasury, says Read has made little effort to lead on major financial issues, such as the public employee retirement system, housing finance or the disposal of properties. controversial retirement assets. “He’s done nothing but promote himself to governor since he took office,” Parish said.

Read pushes back, touting legislative accomplishments like diverting unclaimed class action funds to pay public defenders, and his work at the Treasury: improving the state’s college savings program, implementing a retirement for workers who don’t have one and maintaining high returns on pension investments.

“What you get with me is kind of the sweet spot,” Read says. “A person who knows how to get things done, but also isn’t afraid to admit that what we’re doing isn’t working.”

Read got a big break in February when the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that former journalist Nicholas Kristof, a political newcomer who challenged Kotek and Read, did not meet Oregon’s residency requirement.

Although Read has attracted some Kristof supporters, including Kristof’s wife, Sheryl WuDunn, his pool of potential supporters has been thinned by the insurgent candidacy of former state senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose). Johnson, which is unaffiliated, has led business support – it has outpaced Read 5-1 so far.

That may be because despite his desire to don the outsider mantle, Read is a deep-rooted Salem insider who his former mentor, Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), says is mostly known for his caution.

“If you play it safe in politics, you won’t make friends, you won’t make enemies, and you won’t get anything,” Hass says. “It’s Tobias.”

Former state Rep. Brent Barton (D-Clackamas), who served in the Legislative Assembly with Read, said in a political atmosphere dominated by extremes left and right, the treasurer could be a leader stable and unifying. “There’s no one who works harder in Salem than Tobias Read,” Barton says. “He takes governance seriously.”

Read, 46, grew up in Idaho. He started college in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania but graduated from Willamette University. Subsequently, he moved to Washington, DC to work for then US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. There he befriended another Summers assistant, Sheryl Sandberg, now Facebook’s chief operating officer. Sandberg has contributed $46,000 to Read’s past campaigns, but nothing so far to his run for governor.

Read went on to earn an MBA from the University of Washington. He went to work for Nike as a developer of children’s shoes from 2004 to 2012. He says the company’s drive for innovation has taught him lessons that he brings to politics.

“If you had a credible pitch to make and you had the right audience,” he recalls, “you might say, ‘You’ve got the business model completely wrong.’ And you might have a chance of getting anywhere with that argument.

He says he will similarly challenge the status quo if elected, even though he entered the legislature in 2007, the same year as Kotek.

For a decade, Read served alongside Kotek. At various times, he served as Acting Speaker, Majority Whip, and Chairman of the House Transportation and Higher Education Committees. He left the Legislature to run for state treasurer in 2016. His Republican opponent in that race and again in 2020 was Jeff Gudman.

Gudman, a two-term Lake Oswego city councilor and investor, offers a stark assessment of Read. “He’s a nice guy,” Gudman says, “but he lacks the financial literacy to be treasurer and only uses the office as a stepping stone to running for governor.”

He mocks Read’s portrayal of himself as an outsider. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, you’ve been in power for 15 years and I’ve never heard you say a word of opposition to what’s going on.'”

Another reviewer, Parish, points to a high-profile issue at the Treasury as an example of Read’s reluctance to rock the boat. The Oregon Investment Council, of which Read is one of five members, invested in a limited partnership that bought NSO Group, the Israeli spyware maker whose products some governments have allegedly used to target human rights activists. man and the media.

Despite calls for OCI to sell its position, Oregon is still the NSO owner’s biggest investor. (Read says the Treasury is considering its legal options, but declined to comment further.)

John Russell, a Portland investor who sits on the OCI, says he and Read disagree on NSO, but the treasurer impressed him. “He’s extremely competent,” says Russell. “He may be underrated because the job of treasurer is largely under the radar.”

As proof of its effectiveness, Read cites a program he worked on as a legislator and implemented as treasurer called Oregon Saves, which helps employers start retirement plans for their workers. Oregon Saves helped approximately 113,000 workers save $153 million.

Perhaps the most high-profile issue Read has been associated with is the 91,000-acre Elliott State Forest northeast of Coos Bay. In 2016, Read campaigned to stop the State Land Board from selling the forest.

But then, after winning the election and joining the land council, Read voted to sell the forest.

Environmentalists revolted. Read the reverse course and, as one of three council members (the governor and secretary of state are the other two), he led efforts to keep the forest in public ownership as part of the Oregon State University.

Read’s original vote to sell, however, is the legacy environmental groups remember. The Oregon League of Voters for Conservation waged its costliest campaign ever to pressure Read to change his vote.

“The reason we endorsed Kotek is that she is the gubernatorial candidate who will not need to be pushed and held accountable to get to these places,” the OLCV executive director said. , Doug Moore. “The challenge we had with Tobias is that we had to do these kinds of things. When he gets there he does a good job, but the problem is I don’t think he starts instinctively or in terms of value.

Read rejects this criticism. He says that once elected, he was to act as a trustee of public funds. He says that instead of turning around, he got bold and creative to finally help find an alternative for sale.

“There’s a time to take risks and there’s a time to be extra careful,” Read says.

Even as Governor Brown signed a bill this week commemorating Elliott’s rescue, members of the forest’s advisory committee are hesitant to name Read as the lead agent in the final compromise.

“I think the biggest credit goes to the member of the Elliott State Forest advisory team,” said Keith Tymchuk, former six-term mayor of Reedsport.

Others see Read’s decision to publicly admit that he was wrong in his initial vote to sell the forest as admirable and perhaps a signal that he can steer Oregon away from its current course.

“That’s what I want from my elected officials: people who aren’t afraid to admit that maybe they made the wrong decision the first time around,” said Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins. “That’s how I see the treasurer; he is pragmatic. He tries to find a solution.