In-depth profiles of Tina Kotek and Tobias Read, the two leading Democratic candidates for governor, were published this week by separate authors. They reveal two different personalities and political styles that offer Democratic primary voters a contrasting choice for their nominee.
Kotek’s profile by Nigel Jaquiss appeared in Willamette Week and Read’s in a blog by former Oregon lawmaker and sportscaster Rick Metsger. Both profiles are detailed and illuminating. More candidate profiles will follow, but the ones highlighting Kotek and Read are significant because the winner of the Democratic primary has claimed the governor’s chair in Oregon since the 1986 election.
As Speaker, Kotek rubbed some Democrats the wrong way in her drive to pass priority legislation. Read was called the Mr. Rogers of the House for his cheerful demeanor.
Jaquiss describes Kotek as introverted, focused and a dealmaker. Metsger portrays Read as cheerful, competitive and a consensus-seeker. Both have accomplishments to show for their extensive public service, Kotek as House Speaker for a decade and Read as a legislator and two-term state treasurer.
Kotek, considered the frontrunner, has earned strong support from public employee unions and Democratic progressives. Read, whose campaign appears to be gaining momentum, has been endorsed by former Democratic Governors John Kitzhaber and Barbara Roberts.
Jaquiss reports Kotek has rubbed some Democrats the wrong way, yanking chairmanships from members of her own caucus and doubling back on political deals. Metsger said Read was considered the Mr. Rogers of the House for his affability.
Impact of Kristof Disqualification
Most observers agree the disqualification of Nicholas Kristof from running benefitted Kotek most by sparing her from spending large amounts of campaign cash in the primary, which if she wins the nomination, she will need to outduel former Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson who is mounting a well-financed gubernatorial run as a non-affiliated candidate. The disqualification also benefitted Read by making it a two-person race, pitting experienced politicians with similar policy views, but opposing political styles. There are 13 other Democrats running along with 19 candidates in the Republican primary. Johnson’s name will appear on the November general election ballot.
Kate Brown 2.0
As Jaquiss observed, Kotek is in a very real sense running away from Governor Kate Brown. Critics call her Kate Brown 2.0. Both are Portland liberals, both identify as LGBTQ+ and have been in power, as Jaquiss put it, “as Oregon descended into its current funk”.
While Brown is consultative, Jaquiss says Kotek is decisive, sometimes ruthlessly so. “Kotek is less outgoing and more liberal than Brown – and perhaps more focused on an agenda and clear-eyed about Oregon’s problems, Jaquiss wrote. She agrees with the assessment of former Portland Democratic Rep. Jules Bailey, who has endorsed Read, that Oregon’s “shit isn’t working”.
Kotek says, “I don’t think things are working the way they should be working,” which is where her campaign intersects with Betsy Johnson, who is running on what you might call an accountability platform. Read has a similar theme, pledging on his first day in office to vet the performance of existing state agency heads.
Kotek’s signal achievement is pushing through the Student Success Act and a new business tax to pay for it over Republican opposition. This would be a major difference in the general election with Johnson calling her vote for the bill her biggest regret in her legislative career. The issue is even more tangled because Kotek earned Johnson’s vote by agreeing to cuts in the Public Employee Retirement Savings program, which enraged her core supporters.
Read expresses pride in OregonSaves, the pioneering state-sponsored retirement savings plan for workers without access to a retirement plan offered through their employer, which he pushed through the legislature over Republican objections and launched successfully as state Treasurer. [Disclaimer: CFM was retained by the Treasury Department to work on initial branding and marketing of OregonSaves.]
Kotek, 55, grew up in blue-collar York, Pennsylvania and played three sports, edited the yearbook and student newspaper and graduated second in her high school class. She initially attended Georgetown University in Washington, DC, but felt out of place. Before enrolling at the University of Oregon in 1990, Kotek was a commercial diver and travel agent. She earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the UO and a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Washington. Kotek moved to Portland in 1998 and took jobs as a lobbyist for the Oregon Food Bank and Children First for Oregon.
Kotek was elected to a North Portland House district in 2006 and quickly rose through the ranks as Speaker pro tem and majority leader before becoming House Speaker in the 2013 legislative session. She held that position until January this year when she resigned to work full-time on her gubernatorial campaign.
Read, 46, grew up in Idaho where his father was a psychologist and his mother was an activist, giving him the opportunity as a young person to meet Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez and the real Mr. Rogers. His grandfather was a US diplomat, who served as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees. At age 63, Read’s father was diagnosed with ALS, prompting a lifelong effort by Read to raise money to find a cure for the disease.
Read came to Oregon to attend Willamette University, where he took a degree in politics and economics. He earned an MBA from the University of Washington. He started his career in 1997 at Nike in footwear development. He worked at the US Department of Treasury as an aide to Secretary Larry Summers. His immediate supervisor was Sheryl Sandberg, now the chief operating officer of Meta Platforms. Read joined the Oregon House as a replacement for Rep. Mark Hass and served until his election as state treasurer in 2016. He was re-elected in 2020.
Jaquiss recounts how Kotek is a no-drama driver who refuses to exceed speed limits. The former Speaker still drives a 2004 Honda Civic that she bought before running for the House and now has racked up more than 250,000 miles. According to Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, Kotek’s top deputy, the car is immaculate. “You could eat off the floor of that car,” Warner says.
Metsger recalls that Read, who is very tall and grew up in non-Ivy League Idaho, joined the rowing team at Willamette University. They competed against better funded college opponents with glitzier boats. “His boat looked more like a find from an archaeological dig,” Metsger notes. Read’s competitive drive helped his team look past the quality of their boat and row to a conference championship.
To honor her hometown and perhaps satisfy a sweet tooth, Kotek kept a continuous supply of York Peppermint Patties in her House office.
Read’s championing for ALS research included persuading Governor Kitzhaber to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge and former legislative colleagues to join a bike ride to raise donations. One of his fellow riders was Rep. Vic Gilliam who later was diagnosed with ALS and died of its complications in 2020.