Tobias Read is staking some outsider territory in Democratic bid for governor

The state treasurer has won two statewide races and served a more politically diverse district in the House than Tina Kotek.

February 24, 2022 5:45 am
Oregon State Seal Capitol

June 1 is the deadline to apply for the Translation Advisory Council. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

With Nick Kristof out of the gubernatorial running, the Democratic field has 16 contenders (one of them not yet qualified). Theoretically, any could catch fire and win, but the nomination likely will go to one of two: former House Speaker Tina Kotek or state Treasurer Tobias Read.

The contest between the two of them is still developing with about three months to go. Probably, the prevailing view is that Kotek has an edge. But her advantage may not be overwhelming.

The race hasn’t really heated up yet.

Kotek and Read had their first joint appearance, sort of, at a Multnomah County Democrats zoom candidate forum on Feb. 10, and no fireworks erupted. They barely referred to each other, and then positively.

The only implicit comparisons each drew concerned their own experience in office (work on various legislative issues for Kotek, executive experience for Read). Neither seemed to dominate the event, though both sounded crisp and professional. (None of the other Democrats running for governor appeared at the event.)

Kotek and Read match up in some places.

They’ve been organizing for governor for about the same length of time. And despite Kotek’s organizational support, Read’s campaign treasury is in the same ballpark: He’s not being massively outspent. (Kotek’s current reported cash balance is $882,145, and Read’s is $616,888.)

The case for Kotek’s campaign strength has been well noted. It starts with organizational support on multiple levels, important in a primary election. She has overwhelming support from her fellow (Democratic) legislators, which by itself gives her a network running through at least many of the places where most of the Democratic primary votes are. She has a lengthy list of non-legislative endorsers as well, and from interest groups (environmental, social issues and other).

Labor unions are the biggest outside organizations a Democratic candidate in the state could call on, and she has the bulk of support there.

Kotek has a track record at the legislature, substance she legitimately can tout. And, now resigned from the legislature, she can devote full time to campaigning and fundraising.

There’s a clear basis for calling her the front runner in the race.

But the case for Read, while a little more subtle, is not weak.

As a state representative, Kotek has run only within Portland, in an area where the Democratic registration edge over Republicans long has been five or more to one. When Read served in the House in a Washington County district near the Portland line, he represented more competitive territory (some of it then recently Republican) and had to craft an approach and message amenable to a wider variety of people. His message still seems to reflect that.

In that appearance before the Multnomah Democrats, Read emphasized up front his proposals aimed at places around the state, while Kotek reached that point in response to a question about her interests outside of Portland. (She did deliver a good answer.) But even if you didn’t already know, you could guess that Read started with a more statewide view and Kotek’s was more Portland-centric.

Read twice has run and won statewide, making an appeal to Oregon voters broadly. His winning percentage rose from a close 43.9 percent in 2016 (over 41.6 percent for his Republican opponent Jeff Gudman) to a stronger 51.7 percent four years later (in a rematch with Gudman, who got 41.5 percent).

Strategically, his case may center on a comment he made when Kristof left the race: “This is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination for governor, and there is a clear choice. Continue the status quo in Salem or vote for Tobias Read, someone who isn’t afraid to confront the urgent challenges we face in Oregon.”

It’s worth noting that the strength of the Democratic establishment hasn’t really been seriously tested, in a contest with an insurgency of some sort, in a long time.

On his website and at the Multnomah event, Read sounds a bit like Kristof and also like a candidate running as a Democrat but distinct from the Democratic base, albeit not much at odds philosophically. If he positions Kotek as the establishment candidate, that could hit a sensitive spot.

He could also blunt the anti-establishment appeal that independent Betsy Johnson is developing, which may be of strategic interest to some Democrats.

In turn, that poses a question for Democratic voters: What kind of Democrat do you want, and how do you want to position yourself for the battle in the fall?

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.