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One of Oregon’s top budget writers wants to be state treasurer

Elizabeth Steiner is speaking to someone with their back turned to the camera.
Bryan M. Vance
State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, pictured on April 2, 2019, has announced a campaign for Oregon treasurer.

One of Oregon’s top budget writers will run for state treasurer next year.

State Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, announced her plans Wednesday, a day before candidates can officially file with the Oregon secretary of state. She joins a field that already includes one possible Democratic candidate hoping to replace term-limited Treasurer Tobias Read.

With the run, Steiner is hoping to exchange influence over spending billions of dollars as co-chair of the budget committee for the more low-key work of guiding state investments and encouraging Oregonians to save.

“I think it’s a good time for someone with my expertise and experience to fill a role that isn’t particularly flashy, but is very, very important,” Steiner said in an interview, noting that the state has never had a female treasurer.

Steiner’s plans have been a poorly kept secret, and no other Democratic lawmakers have so far signaled they will pursue the job. In fewer than 12 years in the Senate she has attained a hugely influential position within the body that will be highly sought if she leaves.

But Steiner will apparently face at least one primary opponent in Brett Baker, a Portland-area businessman and president of the Springboard Group. Baker filed a political action committee in July signaling a planned run, but has since refunded the few contributions he received, state records show. He did not respond to an inquiry about his plans.

Another possible candidate: Jeff Gudman, a Lake Oswego investor who previously ran twice for treasurer as a Republican, but is now considering a change of tactics. “I have changed my party [to Democrat], and I am very strongly looking at running for treasurer,” Gudman said this week. “My values haven’t changed.”

Whatever race emerges is not likely to rate for many voters in a presidential election year that also features contests for Oregon secretary of state and attorney general.

The treasurer is one of the lesser-known statewide positions, with responsibility for issuing bonds and helping to manage investments that pay for state pension benefits. In the role, Read has made a point of encouraging citizens to begin saving for retirement and their children’s education via a pair of state programs.

Steiner is a physician who still teaches part-time at Oregon Health & Science University — a practice she’d hope to continue in some form if elected treasurer. Prior to becoming one of the state’s most powerful budget officials, she ran on improving health outcomes. Steiner says the treasurer can help in that mission. “I’ve seen all too many times how financial challenges impact people’s physical and emotional health and long-term well-being,” she said.

One idea she floated: opening an Oregon College Savings Plan account for every baby born in Oregon — and potentially older children who move to the state. Currently Oregon chips in $25 when parents open such an account for their newborn or kindergartner, saying students with such funds are far more likely to continue their education after high school. Steiner suggested she wouldn’t wait for parents to take the initiative.

“It would require a lot of work. It probably requires a constitutional change,” she said. “But that’s something that I think is very easy to explain to Oregonians.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.
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