Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, April 8, in Beaverton. Read is a Democratic candidate for the 2022 Oregon gubernatorial election.

Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, April 8, in Beaverton. Read is a Democratic candidate for the 2022 Oregon gubernatorial election.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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This month, we invited nine of the candidates vying to be Oregon’s next governor for interviews. The seat is open for the first time since 2015. Tobias Read is currently serving his second term as state treasurer. He also served in the State Legislature from 2007-2016, representing House District 27.

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Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Tobias Read joins us now. He’s running in the Democratic primary for Oregon Governor. Read was first elected to the Oregon legislature in 2006. 10 years later, voters made him the state treasurer. He was re-elected in 2020. That means he’s been in charge of the state agency that manages about $140 billion dollars in pension, school, and insurance funds, in addition to operating accounts. Tobias Read, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Tobias Read: Thanks Dave, glad to be here.

Miller: It’s good to have you on. What would your top priority as governor be?

Read: I want us to be measuring our success as a state based on the well being of our kids. And that takes a lot of different forms, but fundamentally, I think we have to start with making sure that we are doing everything we can to give kids a strong start. That means for me, universal Pre-K. It means a baby bond program. It means looking at smart ways to address the summer slide that often happens when people fall behind in the academic progress that they’re making. For me, investments in kids are the best way to ensure that we’re gonna have a future that we want for ourselves and for them.

Miller: Oregon’s high school graduation rate, as I’m sure you know, is one of the lowest in the country. The journal EdWeek ranked the state 40th in terms of K-12 achievement when they put various metrics together. Before we get to what you would do about this, what’s your assessment of why we’re not currently doing that well?

Read: I think one of the biggest things is the lack of stability that we see in public education. I think it’s pretty hard to manage things well, creatively, effectively, efficiently, when you have to worry about whether you have enough money to keep the doors open and the lights on. My wife and I are public school parents in the Beaverton district, and I can remember not so many years ago when Beaverton was celebrating the hiring of a large number of teachers, and we shared in that. But I couldn’t help but think that it would have been better if we hadn’t been following by a not very wide gap, the laying off of a number of teachers. We ride this roller coaster in Oregon, because of our revenue structure that really gets in the way of our ability to do things effectively and creatively. I think we’re in a unique spot now where we can take some of the lessons from the pandemic, and hopefully get into a spot where we’re doing better for students and for families.

Miller: But to what extent do you think money can explain what you’re talking about? I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but my recollection is that Oregon is in the middle of the pack, and it’s actually quite difficult in some ways to compare state to state in terms of K-12 education funding, but when you do that, we’re about in the middle. But we’re not in the middle in terms of achievement. But funding was the first thing you mentioned in terms of added stability. In your thinking, does that alone explain our education system in Oregon?

Read: No. But I think it is an important point. There 197 different independently elected school boards who manage school districts around the state. They’re all going to look different and have different challenges and so on. But I think the ability to give those districts flexibility and the confidence that their funding, that their resources are going to be sufficiently stable, that they can do things. And I talked to one superintendent who talks now about the fact that we ought to think about our school year starting in November. Not because that’s a good thing, but because that’s effectively what’s occurring, because it takes that long for students to catch up with where they were at the end of the previous year. We can find interesting and creative ways, as this particular district is experimenting with, to fill that summer gap in ways that help students fill in something they missed, or make progress on something they’re struggling with, or even just to take advantage of enrichment opportunities. All of these things are really helpful.

And the other piece that I think is essential in this question is those early investments. One of the most predictive measures is third grade reading. If a student is on track at the third grade level, they’re very likely to graduate and be on to some form of success as they define it. If they’re not, that’s when the real trouble starts. When a dropout more or less starts in third grade, we get off track. So knowing that early on, and having the ability to make the interventions that helps a student get back on track, that can have enormous payoffs down the road.

Miller: How would you address homelessness as the governor of the state, given that homelessness is, among other things, an issue that we see in cities all across the state?

Read: I appreciate you acknowledging that. It is certainly visible in Portland, but it is a problem across the entire state. I think the first part of the answer is to move with urgency. And it is just not compassionate to let our neighbors continue to live in these unsafe conditions. It’s not fair to them, and it’s certainly not fair to people who are trying to use parks and public spaces and to business owners. So I think the first step is to move with urgency to put transitional emergency housing and shelter in place that people can get access to the wraparound services they need: mental health care, substance use disorder care.

And in the longer run, we’ve got to get a lot faster and a lot more efficient at building housing of all types across the state. We’ve got to be quicker, we’ve got to be less expensive. We’re losing confidence amongst voters who have largely been supportive of those funding mechanisms, but they’re not now seeing the units that they were promised. So I think both of those short and long term elements have to be part of it. And it’s not something that we can continue to make excuses, because we know and voters recognize that what we’re doing right now is not working.

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Miller: Are you calling out local elected leaders in the Portland metro area when you’re saying that we need to act with urgency? Are you essentially saying that you haven’t seen urgency from them?

Read: I am seeing people on the sidewalk, and I think there’s plenty of- I don’t even like the word blame, but there’s plenty of reason to be dissatisfied with where we are right now. Voters are smart enough to recognize that we’ve all got a role to play in making progress, in recognizing the urgency. Here’s a good example: I think of a business owner that I met in downtown Portland some months ago. She owns a chocolate shop, and I think her story is pretty typical. She’s concerned about the people that are near her store. She tried to help them, she knows many of them. But she’s also been accosted repeatedly on her way to work. And she recognizes I think that her customers aren’t feeling safe, that her employees aren’t feeling safe. And so I think we’ve really got to do right by her, and by the people in need. And we’ve all got a role to play in doing that.

Miller: But what specifically is the governor’s role?

Read: I think the governor’s role is as the chief executive in state government, there are places where state agencies can play a role, and the governor has a tremendous authority as a convener to make sure that we are not pointing at each other and getting bogged down in jurisdictional squabbles. It doesn’t matter if it’s a city, a county, Metro, an ODOT easement, or who’s responsible for that piece of property, we need to be bringing urgency to clean it up, and making sure that the people who happen to be there are connected with the resources they need to get on a path to stable housing.

Miller: You say in your campaign materials that “Oregon needs new leadership and a new direction” and that “We can’t afford more of the same in Salem.” But as I noted in my brief introduction, you’ve been in state politics for 15 years, you’ve held statewide office as a member of the long ruling Democratic Party for the last six years. How are you new leadership?

Read: I’ve been running the State treasury very effectively for the last several years. I have not been in a position to set the state legislative leadership, or to make sure that we are meeting our good intentions in Oregon with the execution that needs to follow. We pass bills, we appropriate money, and that’s great. What we haven’t been doing is making sure that state agencies have the resources they need to carry out those intentions, or holding people accountable when we’re not. That’s what I would bring as governor.

Miller: What’s an example that you can point to where you’ve gone against the grain of your own party or gone your own way in a significant way? I guess what I’m wondering is what’s the evidence that you would actually have done things differently than Democratic leaders who have been in charge over the last six years?

Read: I have not hesitated to call people out. We can look at example after example where we have not lived up to our intentions. When we talk about offering rent relief to people, it’s not as effective when it’s stuck at the housing agency.

And I’m not afraid to say when I think some of my friends are wrong. I was quick to point out that I think we had the sequence wrong when we had bars and restaurants open, but not schools open. When my friends who are teachers said we need to take a day a week into remote school, I said teachers do need help. We do need to do a better job of addressing the unprecedented level of things that we’re asking teachers to do right now. But closing schools for a day a week is exactly the wrong thing to do. It’s families and students who suffer when schools close, and that needs to be our absolute last resort. So I have no trouble saying when I think we’re off track, and even when that puts me in a position of disagreeing with my friends.

Miller: How do you grade Governor Brown’s leadership of the state during the last two years during the pandemic?

Read: I think the governor deserves a lot of credit for making tough decisions that put us in a much stronger position than we might have been without it. But I have been frustrated with some consistency around communications, and as I just said, I think it was a miss to have bars and restaurants open when schools are not.

Miller: You and I had an extended conversation last year about the challenges you saw in divesting PERS funds from fossil fuel connected companies. Among other things, you talked about your fiduciary responsibilities. If you were elected governor though, you’d have a lot more executive authority, as Governor Brown showed with her executive actions on climate change. So how would you approach climate change as governor?

Read: I think we have a real responsibility, both as a state and as a leader of states, to live up to our good intentions. We’re on the road to 100% clean energy. To make that a reality, we have to embrace offshore wind. We have to continue to build out the electric vehicle charging infrastructure we’re gonna need. We have to make buildings more efficient, homes and offices alike. And I think we have an opportunity to bring the entire state into this conversation, ways that we can demonstrate real economic benefit to farmers and ranchers, to people all over the state. So I think this takes a positive tone, not only to be realistic about what happens if we’re not moving quickly, but also the very real benefits to our resilience, to our economy, and the quality of life. And that’s something that I’m excited to be a part of.

Miller: Oregonians voted overwhelmingly a couple of years ago to allow campaign finance limits, but lawmakers so far have refused to enact them. What limits would you support as governor? What would you sign?

Read: I am interested in something that can actually work, and I would be enthusiastic about any of those. But I also don’t want to be so naive as to think that that’s gonna be the end of the conversation. I worked in the 1996 campaign when there were contribution limits and expenditure limits. And what we saw was a change in who is communicating, but not necessarily in the tone or the content. So I think any contribution limits, expenditure limits need to be accompanied by a serious conversation around transparency, around how voters would be able to see who is paying for the communications that are part of campaigns.

Miller: What statewide issue, what Oregon issue do you think is simply not getting enough attention right now?

Read: Gosh, there’s so many. I would point in particular to the resilience that we need to be paying attention to. We see it in lots of different forms, most recently and perhaps most visibly around wildfires. But at one point prior to the pandemic, we were talking about the seismic vulnerability that Oregon has. Unfortunately, that hasn’t gone away. So we’ve got to be prepared for all of those dangers that are coming, and I hope we are using the lessons from this pandemic to boost our resilience, to boost our capacity, to boost the ways that we’re going to be prepared for disruptions, some of which we can predict, and many of which we need to be prepared for despite our inability to forecast them.

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