Tina Kotek and Tobias Read differed little on the issues brought forth during their first joint appearance for their party's nomination for governor.
But the most widely known of the 17 Democratic candidates offered differing experience to achieve similar goals in front of a mostly friendly audience Friday night, March 18, at the Oregon AFL-CIO's annual convention in Portland.
"No other candidate in this race … has delivered more results for working Oregonians," said Kotek, who just ended 15 years in the Oregon House from a district in North and Northeast Portland and a record nine years as its speaker. Among the bills passed during her tenure were paid sick leave (2015), advance job scheduling (2017, with a full 14-day notice taking effect in 2020) and paid family and medical leave (2019, scheduled to take effect in 2023).
Whether it is homelessness and housing, recovery from the coronavirus pandemic or a response to climate change, she said, "I am not going to play games or make promises I cannot deliver on. My door will always be open to make sure the voices of workers are heard and listened to."
Read spent 10 years representing Beaverton in the Oregon House, including two legislative cycles as majority whip, before he was elected state treasurer in 2016. He said his recent position gives him the edge if he is elected governor.
"What we need is executive experience and the ability to deliver on promises," he said.
"We've got to be clear … about the fact that what we are doing right now is not working. But we've also got enormous potential in droves. If we are willing to focus on execution to try to match our good intentions and follow through, we can rebuild confidence in government and in ourselves."
Oregon's largest labor federation has made no endorsement in for the May 17 primary, although according to a survey published Feb. 18 by the Northwest Labor Press, Kotek has amassed support from a dozen unions that have — including Local 503 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest group of state workers.
President Graham Trainor told the audience that only Kotek and Read responded to a lengthy questionnaire from the federation, plus a request for how they plan to win this year, so they were the only candidates invited on stage at the Hyatt Regency/Oregon Convention Center.
"Working people have a high set of expectations for Oregon's next governor with a rigged economic system that is leaving too many workers behind," Trainor said afterward. "We are looking hard at all the candidates to ensure that working people are front and center on the next governor's agenda."
Democratic incumbent Kate Brown is barred by term limits from running again after having served almost two full terms, succeeding John Kitzhaber in February 2015. Democrats have held the governorship for 36 years, a state record; Vic Atiyeh's re-election in 1982 was the most recent victory by a Republican.
A test for both
Kotek and Read are the only two of the 17 Democrats in the field who have held state elected office.
For Kotek, 55, it will be a test of whether one of the Legislature's former presiding officers can win Oregon's top executive office. The only one in recent years to have done so was Democrat Kitzhaber, who led the Oregon Senate for eight years as president — but was out of office — when he was elected governor for the first time in 1994.
For Read, 46, it will be a test of whether a state treasurer can be elected governor. The most recent one to do so was Democrat Bob Straub, who was elected in 1974 — two years out of office — after losing to Tom McCall in 1966 and 1970. Two others were elected treasurer after losing bids for governor: Republican Clay Myers in 1976 and Democrat Ben Westlund in 2008. Democrat Jim Hill made two losing bids in 2002 and 2006 after his eight years as treasurer.
Both candidates responded to written questions put forth by a panel, and then from the audience.
Both offered similar approaches to homelessness and housing. Both supported greater efforts to find shelter and services, but also more construction, particularly housing for all incomes.
"We have a humanitarian crisis," Kotek said. "I see it here in Portland, and anywhere you live around this state, we have people who don't have homes. We need to fix that."
She referred to the 111,000-unit gap in housing units that has occurred in the past decade — half of them sought by households earning less than the area's median income — and that it will take an annual average of 36,000 for the next decade to catch up. (Current housing production in Oregon averages 20,000 to 25,000 units, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.)
"We haven't been doing very well at that lately," Read said. "We are losing confidence among voters who have supported money mechanisms. we have got to do more to cut through the delays and reduce costs. That is the difference between passing legislation and execution."
Black Lives Matter
Asked what Black Lives Matter means to them, both said Oregon must confront a legacy of injustice to Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities that re-emerged during protests in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
"We have to have a hard conversation in this state about the history of racism in our country and what that means for how people of color feel and are treated by law enforcement, how they experience our schools. For me, it means making sure how we truly live up to our values as Americans."
"I'm not sure I have a lot to add to that. We are long overdue for a conversation about unfinished business that exists in Oregon. We are not making sure that Black Oregonians have the same opportunities that other people have and everyone should."
Both said they would work to improve conditions for "essential workers" — defined as those in education and health care, plus farms and retail trades — who often bore the brunt of exposure during the coronavirus pandemic of the past two years.
Beyond pay, benefits and working conditions, Read said, "we need to make sure that people are treated with the respect they deserve and that young people see the work as a career that is attractive to them for the life they want."
Kotek said that in addition to direct state aid for health care, housing and other programs, she worked to make it easier for such workers to obtain workers' compensation benefits during the pandemic. (A state agency rule makes benefits easier to obtain by some health care workers with direct care or indirect support of patients. However, 2021 session bills died that would have shifted the presumption for COVID-19 coronavirus illnesses onto employers.)
"But there are more challenges ahead," Kotek said. "I want you to know, no matter what those challenges are, I will continue to be on your side and every Oregonian should have a path to opportunity and success."
NOTE: Corrects date of Bob Straub's second loss to Tom McCall for governor; it was 1970.