Former Oregon gubernatorial candidate Nick Kristof is getting out of politics and back into journalism. Now he needs to figure out how he’ll spend all his unused political cash.
The longtime New York Times columnist abandoned that prestigious post last year in order to attempt a run at the state’s highest elected office. But with the campaign cut short by residency requirements in Oregon’s constitution, Kristof revealed Monday he’s headed back to the Times.
In conjunction with that announcement, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner handed off nearly $1 million in unspent political cash, then deactivated his campaign committee, state records show. After reimbursing himself for a little over $2,000 for personal expenses, Kristof donated $990,000 to a new political action committee called Oregon Strong.
That’s not the same as saying Kristof got rid of the money, exactly. The new PAC, created last month, is directed by Kristof’s wife, the author Sheryl WuDunn, and his former campaign bookkeeper, Elizabeth Wilson. (Editor’s note: After Kristof’s political campaign ended, WuDunn joined OPB’s board of directors.)
Kristof said the financial shift was a way to distance himself from the money while still working on his plan for spending it: He wants to create an innovative loan program to help Oregonians pay for job training.
“Since I’m headed back to journalism I thought it best to end the Nick for Oregon PAC and separate myself from its Oregon Strong successor,” Kristof said in an email Tuesday. “But I continue to be in planning for the job training programs and have been in Zoom meetings just the last couple of days about this.”
Kristof hasn’t shared precise details about how he’ll spend money initially meant for his political campaign, but sketched the broad strokes of the idea out for donors in a June email. He hopes to leverage the money to start a program that will front Oregonians the money for job training programs, and only require repayment if they find gainful employment.
Such systems, sometimes called “career impact bonds” or “pay it forward funds,” have emerged in recent years in states like Ohio and New Jersey. One program that has received significant media attention – including from Kristof’s former and soon-to-be employer – fronts money for diesel mechanic training in Ohio, then bases the amount a participant pays back on what they earn once they graduate.
Kristof says his program would be the first of its kind on the West Coast. He’s been in discussions with Social Finance, the national nonprofit that runs the Ohio financing program and others like it, about using his money to start a similar program in Oregon. The Oregon Secretary of State’s Office has said charitable donations are a valid use of unspent campaign funds.
Kristof has also been in talks with Gov. Kate Brown’s office about linking his idea to Future Ready Oregon, the $200 million job training initiative Brown spearheaded in the Legislature earlier this year.
“My own money is modest by the standards of job training funds, so I’m looking to catalyze a larger sum,” Kristof told OPB in June. “In other states, $10 million to $20 million has seemed a good sum.”
He added that he was “agnostic” about what kinds of job training his money would be tied to, saying the answer “has to come from evidence of highest placement rates, highest increased increment in starting salaries, and so on.”
Brown’s Future Ready Oregon places special emphasis on manufacturing, health care and technology jobs. Kristof said Tuesday he’s been in discussions with “a growing cast of Oregon organizations” about his idea.
Kristof, who grew up in rural Yamhill, emerged as a surprising and formidable Democratic candidate for governor last year. His decades at the upper echelons of journalism had led to deep-pocketed connections, and he was quickly able to amass a donor list that included the likes of Angelina Jolie, Melinda French Gates and Lawrence Summers.
But Kristof’s journalism career cut against him, too. As a Times employee, he owned a home and voted in New York state. Though he has now moved back to run his family farm in Yamhill, state elections officials and the Oregon Supreme Court determined earlier this year that he did not do so in time to satisfy the three-year residency requirement for governor.
Kristof spent much of the $2.7 million he raised on campaign payroll and the high-priced attorneys who attempted to save his candidacy. He’s also dolled out money to fellow Democrats – though not in the amounts they perhaps hoped. Kristof donated $10,000 to Tina Kotek, his former political rival and now the Democratic nominee for governor. He also given to Democratic legislative candidates, and candidates for the Yamhill County Commission.
Kristof said recently he has no plans to run for political office again. He is currently writing a “journalistic memoir.”