Oregon treasurer candidates differ sharply on how forceful the office should be
If you find yourself losing interest at the mere mention of the state treasurer, consider a few things:
The person in charge of Oregon’s treasury has a finger on every tax dollar that comes into state coffers. Their decisions can dictate how cheaply Oregon is able to borrow money, and therefore how efficiently those tax dollars are spent on major projects. And they help chart the course for around $100 billion in investments that play a major role in addressing Oregon’s ongoing pension crisis.
In other words, the role of the state’s chief financial officer is vital. And this year, Oregonians have a choice between two major-party candidates who bring big differences in how public-facing that work needs to be.
Sitting Treasurer Tobias Read is running for a second term, after first winning the office in 2016. Read, 45, is a Democrat who previously spent a decade representing the Beaverton area in the state House of Representatives. He worked for eight years at Nike before going into politics full time.
Running against him is a familiar opponent. Jeff Gudman is an investor who says his history acting as a treasurer in the private sector and serving two terms on the Lake Oswego City Council have shaped him perfectly to set the course of Oregon’s finances.
Gudman, 66, has perhaps more reason for optimism than any other statewide Republican candidate this cycle. When he ran against Read in 2016, he lost by less than 3 percentage points, with tens of thousands of votes in that race claimed by an independent candidate who now endorses him.
There are two other candidates in the race: Michael Marsh is the nominee of the Constitution Party, and Chris Henry has been tapped by the Pacific Green Party, Independent Party of Oregon and Progressive Party. Both men have run unsuccessfully for office regularly in the last decade, and have reported little or no fundraising activity this election cycle.
Read and Gudman both highlight the need for sober and responsible fiscal management and Oregon, but they bring big differences in their approach to the position.
Read has kept a fairly low profile in nearly four years in office, but argues that he has been effective without requiring attention for his efforts.
“I’m not one who feels like I need to hold a press conference about everything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m the person who gets up thinking about retirement account balances and who’s saving for their kid’s college.”
The sentiment highlights a big part of Read’s sales pitch: his work to improve the financial security of Oregonians. Since taking office, he’s helped build Oregon Saves, a program that gives citizens options for building retirement savings if they can’t otherwise access a plan through work. More than 70,000 people have created accounts with the state in recent years, and Read says he’s committed to growing the program going forward.
Read also touts work he’s done to increase the number of investment staff that the Treasury Department employs in-house, as opposed to contracting for the work. He claims that’s netted hundreds of millions of dollars between savings and improved investment returns, money that stabilized Oregon’s underfunded pension system.
If he’s reelected, Read says, voters should expect “more of the same.”
“What I’m presenting is a demonstrated record of competence and achievement,” he said. “I’m not a person who’s going to be ideological, who is going to misrepresent and misconstrue the responsibilities of the treasury.”
Those comments are meant to parry a criticism Gudman has been leveling on the campaign trail: That the treasurer has been absent in conversations on the state’s central problems.
“He doesn’t say what he thinks about the various issues of the state,” Gudman said, rattling off hot topics such as a new sales tax on businesses, a proposed cap-and-trade system, and budgetary impacts from COVID-19. “To me, you have to express what you’re thinking and why you’re thinking it. Give your recommendations and go from there.”
Gudman says he’ll be extremely vocal as the state treasurer. Not only will he offer up opinions on weighty legislative matters, he talks of establishing a new process within the Treasury Department for evaluating large construction projects the state is considering, and recommending which ones are most pressing. As treasurer, it would be Gudman’s job to issue bonds for those projects. The analysis he has in mind would expand that role.
Gudman acknowledges this approach could go over poorly with the elected officials who have ultimate say in how public dollars are spent: the governor and legislators.
“The bully pulpit is going to be based on the development of very specific actions,” he said. “If I come in as treasurer as if I’m going to dictate what should happen, it’s going to go nowhere. I’ll get my legs cut off and everything else.”
Gudman and Read are also at odds over what the treasurer’s role should be in addressing the state’s pension system, which has billions less on hand than it must eventually pay out to current and future retirees
As treasurer, Read helps steer investments that are crucial to keeping the state retirement fund afloat. But Gudman believes Read should also advocate for measures to help pay down the state’s $24 billion unfunded liability more quickly.
Such decisions are often politically radioactive, since they deal with the retirement benefits of thousands of public workers. They’re also not part of the treasurer’s authority — they’re governed by lawmakers and by a five-member board that oversees the Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS.
“The PERS question is one that has to be addressed and needs to be talked about,” Gudman said, adding that he’d explore switching over to a defined contribution-style system more similar to a 401(k). “Tobias has consistently said that the Treasurer’s Office focuses on the investment side and it’s the PERS board that has responsibility for the liability benefit side and therefore he doesn’t get engaged. He’s wrong.”
Read, who has the backing of public-employee unions, answers many of his opponent’s criticisms by suggesting Gudman is an ideologue who doesn’t understand the role the state treasurer plays. He notes that putting more money into paying down the state’s pension debt would require snatching dollars from public services.
“What I have not heard him say is specifically how many fewer school days he would be fine with,” Read said. “This is not a theoretical exercise. These are actual dollars.”
More generally, Read says there’s a good reason he has not been front-and-center on many pressing issues: Because he can be more effective working on the sidelines.
“I’ve worked really hard to carve out a space where I can be productive in those conversations,” he said. “What it allows me to do behind the scenes is to talk to legislative leaders about what does work and what doesn’t work in a way that they don’t feel like they are being positioned, … when it comes to a very complicated and important issue.”
Gudman’s ready criticisms of his opponent have not helped him match Read’s fundraising.
Since early 2019, Read has reported raising more than $900,000, and with roughly $250,000 still on hand as of mid-October. Gudman, by contrast, has raised about $200,000 in the same period.
But Read’s fundraising has occasionally raised eyebrows. In January, OPB reported that many of the treasurer’s top donors were out-of-state law firms that actively seek to do business with the state — business the Department of Treasury can help give.
The donations are allowed in Oregon, but they’ve prompted Gudman and other treasurer candidates to cry foul. Some state lawmakers said this year they’d consider proposing “pay-to-play” regulations that limit what kinds of donations public officials can accept from entities seeking state business.
“It’s legal, yes, but it doesn’t look right,” Gudman said.
Read, meanwhile, has said the out-of-state lawyers that have given him hundreds of thousands of dollars are “good guys” who want to crusade against corporate abuse. Read says they back him because he has supported suing companies that defraud Oregon investors. Such suits can lead to huge windfalls for law firms.
Read also has seen big checks from the Service Employees International Union, the state’s largest public-sector union, and from The Papé Group, a Eugene-based holding company that more typically supports Republicans.
Records show that Gudman’s top donor is Bud Pierce, the 2016 Republican candidate for governor, who gave the campaign $5,000 in January. Gudman has also loaned his campaign $50,000 of his own money.
Gudman says frequently on the campaign trail that he’s interested only in serving the maximum eight years as state treasurer, then returning to his life in Lake Oswego. He, and many others, believe Read has loftier goals.
“Tobias has been running for governor since he got to the Legislature,” Gudman said. “This is a stepping stone for him. … It’s not for me.”
If Read did choose to run for governor, his best chance would be in 2022, when Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited from running again and the seat will be open. He demurred when OPB asked about the subject.
“I haven’t even thought about what we’re going to make for dinner tonight,” he said. “There’s so many things in the world that I can’t rule out and can’t control. … I don’t want to make promises.”
Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting