Democrats vie for Oregon state treasurer nomination with eye on PERS and big topics

By Bryce Dole (OPB )
May 1, 2024 1 p.m.

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner and Jeff Gudman are trying to woo Democratic voters.

Elizabeth Steiner (left) and Jeff Gudman are running in the May 21 Oregon primary election for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer.

Elizabeth Steiner (left) and Jeff Gudman are running in the May 21 Oregon primary election for the Democratic nomination for state treasurer.

Photos courtesy of the campaigns

Oregon’s next state treasurer will take the reins on an office with big tasks already at hand.


They will manage the state’s $98 billion Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS, and its $28 billion unfunded liability. They will inherit outgoing state Treasurer Tobias Read’s plans to divest in fossil fuels and make the state’s investment portfolio carbon neutral by 2050.

Two Democratic candidates are on the ballot and they’re raising plans for the office that helps manage Oregon’s financial wellbeing.

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a family physician and professor at Oregon Health & Science University, has served in the Legislature for 12 years, eventually rising to the role of a lead budget writer. Her opponent Jeff Gudman is an investor who served eight years on the Lake Oswego City Council and has lost this race twice when he ran as a Republican.

The winner will face Sen. Brian Boquist, a Republican from Dallas, in the November general election. Boquist is one of 10 Republican state senators barred from seeking reelection in the Legislature this year following the 2023 walkout.

The treasurer sits on the Oregon Investment Council, which manages PERS investments, and on the State Land Board. The treasurer also helps manage Oregon Saves, which helps Oregonians save for retirement if their employers don’t have a plan, and oversees the state’s college savings plan.

The candidates have different aims for the office and are trying to set themselves apart for voters on a number of fronts, including reinvesting funds from Oregon’s “kicker” and improving financial literacy.

Gudman has sought to differentiate himself from Steiner by saying his experience as an investor gives him the chops to safely manage the state’s money. And he criticized Steiner for voting to cut PERS benefits in 2019, adding he would not have done the same.

Steiner said she wasn’t happy to vote to cut PERS but said it was fiscally necessary and helped ensure support for the Student Success Act, a bill that aimed to provide about $2 billion annually toward Oregon education.

“Being a legislator means making really tough choices,” she said, noting that it was supported by other Democrats, too.

For her part, Steiner criticized Gudman for changing from a Republican candidate to a Democrat and accused him of shifting his stance on divesting from fossil fuels. She noted that his previous campaign received money and an endorsement in 2020 from Timber Unity, a group that pushed back against Oregon legislation for cap-and-trade in 2019 and 2020. He also spoke at a rally held by the group.

“I’m challenged by his flip-flopping,” Steiner said.

Gudman distanced himself from the group in an interview with OPB. He said that while he stands by what he said at the cap and trade rally and the concerns of working class Oregonians not being heard, he disagrees with what Timber Unity stands for today.

“Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, the group has moved away from addressing these legitimate concerns to being a group that appears to be solely about electing Republicans and have aligned in some cases, or aligned potentially, with violence,” Gudman said.


In a statement to OPB, Marie Bowers, the co-director of the Timber Unity Political Action Committee, responded to Gudman’s comments, saying: “We did endorse him previously, based upon our issues and his stated values, that now appear to have changed. It’s disappointing Mr. Gudman is ill-informed, only believing what he reads in the newspaper, rather than continuing engagement with the Timber Unity community.”

Elizabeth Steiner

Six years as co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee has shown Steiner how the treasurer’s office is structured, how to budget and sell bonds and more, she said. In addition, she touted her work in the Legislature — expanding access to the Oregon Health Plan and increasing temporary aid for families in need — as proof that she can work with lawmakers to make meaningful change.

“My statewide experience and my ability to interact and understand what it means to be a working Oregonian who benefits from all these programs vastly outstrips (Gudman’s) experience,” she said in a recent interview.

Steiner’s campaign has been endorsed by many Oregon Democrats, including U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, as well as Republican lawmakers and commissioners. Steiner’s campaign has so far outraised Gudman’s with nearly $370,000 in contributions compared to his roughly $82,000.

Some of her goals, she said, would be to improve Oregonians’ financial literacy and double the number of youths participating in the Oregon College Savings Plan. She also wants to start a baby bond program, which uses public money to create a savings account at birth. The goal is that, over time, the interest on the bonds will provide them with money for big purchases when they’re older, like college or a car.

“A baby bond program can be transformative in helping break cycles of intergenerational financial insecurity,” she said. “And if we can do that, the Oregon that my grandchildren grow up in will be very different from the Oregon my children grew up in, and for the better.”

But she said one of her main jobs would be to implement the plan to get to net zero carbon emissions while growing the pension fund. She said she wants to use the state’s position as an investor to hold corporations accountable to reach the goal.

“I think we can reduce our carbon footprint and grow our pension fund simultaneously,” she said. “It is not an either or.”

Jeff Gudman

Gudman says that his experience as an investor uniquely positions him to get things done as treasurer, despite the fact that he has no legislative experience.

“While there is a benefit to having those relationships, it’s not a requirement,” he said, adding: “I would suggest that I’m better prepared with respect to the financial background, the investing background, by my decades of experience, to be the treasurer.”

Among his big plans is to address the state’s pension debt by plugging in an additional $100 million each year into the system, though he didn’t disclose where the money would come from. He says that could help address what he predicts to be poorer investment returns in recent years.

“If I’m right, then I’ve helped shore up the system,” he said. “If I’m wrong, then additional money going in means we can restore the cuts that my opponent voted for.”

Gudman agrees that the state needs to quickly divest in fossil fuels, but says this needs to be done carefully. “Divestment has a downside. If you don’t own, say, an ExxonMobil, you don’t have a place at the table to try and influence ExxonMobil.”

He added that decarbonizing the investment portfolio needs to “be done carefully and thoughtfully with a scalpel and not with a — if you will — a sledge hammer or a saw.”

Gudman explained that he changed parties due to differences he sees between himself and the Republican party, including issues like women’s health care and access to abortion, and said his views were more similar to Democrats.

“You have some very implied or explicitly stated racism, which is unacceptable,” he said of Republicans. “It goes against the respect for and the dignity of every individual. I just came to the conclusion that the values that I have are no longer in alignment.”