PORTLAND, Ore. — With Oregon's May primary election is just weeks away, top Democratic candidates for governor Tina Kotek and Tobias Read aimed to set themselves apart to voters in the first gubernatorial debate.
Portland City Club hosted the Friday debate between Kotek and Read, which was moderated by KGW anchors Laural Porter and David Molko.
While the two candidates share similar views on many major issues, Read, who was elected state treasurer in 2016, is positioning himself as a more moderate Democrat and a political outsider who has experience taking big ideas and making them happen.
Kotek, who spent nine years as Oregon House Speaker, is pitching herself as an insider candidate who knows the state's biggest problems and has already worked to pass legislation and help solve them.
Here's how the candidates answered questions about some of the state's biggest problems.
Tobias Read said as governor he would bring urgency to addressing the homelessness crisis. He said the most frustrating thing to him is money to address homelessness is there, but it's not paying off with results. He said voters who've approved ballot measures to build more affordable housing and move people off the streets are getting impatient.
"We are also losing the confidence of voters who have been supportive of our funding mechanisms. But they are getting impatient. They're not seeing the units they were promised. So, our problem is going to get worse if we don't get on top of that. In the end we have to recognize what we are doing right now isn't working," Read said.
He called on governments at all levels to come together to make progress.
Tina Kotek called homelessness the number one issue she hears about from Oregonians across the state. Kotek lives in Portland and said she sees what she called a "humanitarian crisis" every day. She said she worked hard as Speaker to do what could be done at the state level and pointed to "Project Turnkey." She said she led the way in getting funding for the project that converted motels into shelters. Kotek said the money from the state has been there to help and the problem has been implementation. She had harsh words for Portland's mayor.
Polls in the Portland metro area show the issue of homelessness is the number one concern. What's been wrong with the way the city of Portland has handled the homeless crisis and how would your approach be different in the way the city and state interact?
Read: I think we have to bring urgency and seriousness. It is just not OK for us to continue to be complacent about this. There are people on the streets in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. It's not fair to them and it's not fair to people who want to be safe in their neighborhoods and to businesses. The challenging thing, the most frustrating thing for me is that money is available and we're not following through, we're not executing. So I think it's a matter of that urgency, making sure that transitional and emergency housing is available with the wraparound services that people need, in the long run we're getting a lot more efficient and effective and cost-effective in building permanent housing.
Kotek: At the state level, as Speaker, I worked really hard to do make sure we could do what we could, for example Project Turnkey, I led the way to convert motels across our state into transitional housing. We increased the shelter capacity in the state by 20% in only about seven months, 19 new shelters in 13 counties. That's the type of innovative work we need to see more of from the state. I have led the way to make sure the state is providing more money to our local communities. So what's the problem? Implementation. I am not happy with Mayor Wheeler's performance. I've worked specifically to say, "Here's money for an RV park." Where is it yet? When I said you need two million dollars to clean up graffiti and trash on ODOT's property, it was there. I don't believe the city is focused in a way that they should, it is about being able to operationalize it, and as governor, we're gonna have some different conversations about how to make that happen.
Question: Would you take a more assertive approach into tent camping, a lot of people want to see that happen, move people into shelters, would you be more assertive in moving tent camping off the streets?
Read: We have to make sure that there are those available transitional shelters and opportunities, but once we're there, yes, I think it is ok to say you have responsibilities to the other parts of community as well.
Kotek: I think we have to be more assertive in the overall approach but when it comes to having folks move into shelters we need more homeless navigators on the street, it's in my plan, to help people have that connection and trusting relationship to get people into shelter so they can move into permanency. That will take time, but it will also take more people on the streets doing that work. And right now you can't move people unless there is more shelter and more transitional options. We have to create those, and I am so frustrated at the speed at which the city is doing this work and we can do it differently.
Gun violence and policing
Portland hit a grim record in 2021 with 90 homicides, the most in the city's history. This year we are on track to pass that. What specific steps will you take as governor to address gun violence and make our streets safer, and do you feel safe walking through Downtown Portland?
Kotek: I know a lot of Portlanders don't feel safe. I've lived in some pretty large cities, and in terms of personal safety, I think we all have to be cautious. In every city in the country right now as we come out of this pandemic, there's a lot of violence and frankly there are too many guns on the street. When I was Speaker, I did what I could to make sure we were keeping guns out of the hands of folks who shouldn't have them. Increasing our background checks, making sure that individuals who were domestic abusers couldn't have access to guns, passing a safe storage law that said if you own a gun, store it safely so it can't get stolen or have an accidental death. Those are good, but it's not enough. We need to ban and figure out how to get ghosts guns off the streets, we have to make sure that when violence in the community happens that there's intervention and prevention to stop the cycle of violence, we need to make sure that our law enforcement can be there when they're needed, but also make sure that there are other professionals like Portland Street Response that can be there when someone is in a mental health crisis. We need a broader, deeper approach to community policing, and we have to keep folks from committing violent acts in the first place. That means supporting them well in their schools, making sure they have what they need. A lot of folks are hurting right now, and we have a lot work to do to make sure that we as a community can reduce this violence.
Read: We need to ban ghost guns, we need to ban high capacity magazines as methods of reducing the risk of mass shootings, we need a statewide gun buyback program to help safely remove guns from circulation and we need more resources to law enforcement. That's going to look different in different communities, it's certainly going to include accountability measures and alternatives approaches along with those violence interruption programs, but ultimately we need to make sure that law enforcement has the resources they need to respond, particularly to gun crime and to illegal gun dealers.
What does "defund the police" mean to you today, nearly two years after the death of George Floyd?
Kotek: I think we need law enforcement that people in the community feel safe calling and feel that they're responsible and accountable, and making sure people don't interact with police in the first place — making sure all people in the community have what they need to be successful.
Read: I think we need to learn the lessons of people who were really frustrated and worried about their interactions with law enforcement and we need to take lessons from that around making sure that police are effective and accountable. Someone I know well says, "I don't want less police, I want better police," and I think that's a good summary for me.
After two years of mostly distance learning during the pandemic, a study from Brookings shows reading and math scores have dropped for U.S. students, and the gap is wider in higher-poverty schools. What plan do you have for Oregon students to catch up academically?
Kotek: When I look at those test scores, I think they're not a good indicator of where anything is right now. I was a big fan and champion of doing more summer learning, making sure there are other opportunities outside the school year where students can get reacquainted with their peers, have different developmental opportunities and progress academically and make up. We need to make sure we don't make any cuts in our schools right now, make sure we can lower classroom sizes and frankly, shouldn't spend extra hours doing standardized testing, which doesn't mean a whole lot right now. We should be focusing on one-on-one instruction with our students so they can stay on track to graduate. I believe with those Student Success [Act] dollars, which I helped pass, we should be able to do that.
Read: This is a really personal thing for me — we have a daughter in seventh grade and a son in third grade and I have been frustrated about this through the pandemic. I've not been shy about calling out my friends and asking for the urgency that I think we needed in getting schools open at a much faster rate. Looking forward, I think we need to learn the lessons from the pandemic, make sure that students have a fair start to their experience in school. I think universal pre-K is important, I think real investments in the evolving science of how students learn to read. We do have a lot of opportunities to fill gaps, to allow people to catch up or add enrichment opportunities over the summer gap. Finally, I think we can't overlook the need for mental health capacity in schools, for educators and for students.
What significant move would you make as governor that would make a difference when it comes to climate change?
Kotek: I've been a climate champion fighting for 100% clean electricity, making sure we can reduce air and water pollution, there are many things we can do. But who the next governor is will matter because right now some of the things we're doing were done by executive order by the current governor. We need to have a governor who won't go back on her word and go backwards. We need to progress, we need to do more. It's going to take all of us. The city of Portland can't do it by themselves, the whole state has to be committed to meeting our carbon reduction goals so we can do our part to make sure climate change does not get any worse. One of the jobs as governor is to make sure agencies are following our climate action plan and when it comes to the department of transportation, making sure that ODOT is using new federal dollars in a way that actually reduces emissions, helps people get into other modes of transportation, particularly in the Portland metro area. But that is not enough, we have to do more in our transportation sector, get more people into zero-emission vehicles. I also think we need to take on methane. As we all know from the recent UN report, while methane might not be as prevalent, its impacts are substantial. We have to reduce methane emissions in our state and we have to hold our fossil fuel companies accountable to do that.
Read: I think we have to live up to the goals that we set for 2040, and I think there are three things in particular that can make the difference: embracing offshore wind, and getting a lot faster about how to implement that, getting a lot faster in building electric vehicle charging infrastructure and building a secondary market for electric vehicles, and being a lot better about energy efficiency in buildings — homes and offices alike. While we do that, we have to keep in mind that we can't leave vulnerable communities behind because these policies and these opportunities affect different populations differently.