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Democratic state senator will campaign to be Oregon's first female state treasurer

Having held the legislative purse strings on the powerful Ways and Means committee, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner now wants to guide the state's big investments.

SALEM, Ore. — By the end of this week, the window to file for statewide political office in Oregon opens up, marking the unofficial start of campaign season. Some politicians will be angling to win outright on the ballot for the primary election, set for May 21, 2024, while others will need to stick it out until November — be it candidates for Congress, for county district attorney, state attorney general, secretary of state or state treasurer.

One such candidate hopes to make history with her bid, and she gave The Story a little advanced heads-up about her campaign.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a medical doctor and key budget writer in the Oregon Legislature, plans to run for state treasurer. Her official announcement will come Wednesday. She spoke with The Story's Pat Dooris to explain why she thinks she's a good candidate for the office.

"I'm running because being treasurer in the right way to help Oregon be the strongest, healthiest state in the nation, which has always been my goal," Steiner told Dooris. "As a family physician and as the state's chief budget writer for over five years now, I've seen the toll that financial insecurity can take on people, leading to physical and emotional, well, problems. Many Oregonians are one unexpected medical expense away from missing a car payment, losing their home, or not being able to pay for childcare. And if we can help Oregonians build financial security, we can prevent a lot of problems and break multi-generational cycles of poverty."

"That all sounds great, except I think most people, when they think of the treasurer's office, they think PERS (Oregon Public Employee Retirement System) and billions invested," Dooris said. "They don't think personal savings."

"Yeah, it's absolutely true that the treasurer is responsible for making sure the public employee retirement fund is invested well and continues to grow so we can meet our obligations for Oregon's retirees," Steiner said. "In addition, the treasurer is also responsible for some very important savings programs, including what we call the college savings plan, but it can also be used for any kind of post-high school education ... It is also possible that we could develop other programs, voluntary programs that people could participate in to help them save for a rainy day — just as I've helped the state do."

"Although it sounds simple … if people had the money to save, seems like they'd already be saving," Dooris replied. "It's not that they don't have a program."

"True. And it's also true that most people don't have a financial education," Steiner countered. "Most people have not been given the tools they need to make the right choices, the best choices for themselves and their families in the future."

Looking to make history

Steiner is a Democrat from Northwest Portland who was first appointed to the Oregon Senate in late 2011. If elected Oregon State Treasurer, she would be the first woman in history to hold the office.

She began her professional life as a doctor. While she said she loved being a family physician, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994 and became very sick in 2001. Her symptoms made it difficult to continue in family medicine. Instead, she got involved in other areas of the medical field, doing clinic work and teaching medical students.

Her appointment to the Senate in 2011 marked her first real foray into politics, but she was eager to influence health and fiscal policy.

She has since dug in deep. As a current co-chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Steiner has a lot of influence over how the legislature allocates taxpayer funds. During the last legislative session, Steiner patiently explained various parts of the state budget and different types of bonding to The Story, walking us through how the money moves.

Oregon's current treasurer is Tobias Read, but term limits dictate that he cannot run again in 2024. Last year, Read faced an effort by some lawmakers to force the Oregon State Treasury to pull its pension money out of companies that are big producers of greenhouse gases — fossil fuel companies, for example. Read eventually proposed a gradual divestiture, going green by 2050, and the bill that would have forced the issue never gained traction in the legislature.

Dooris asked Steiner where she stood on the issue.

"This is one of those 'truth lies in between' questions," Steiner offered. "Which is to say, I strongly support making Oregon and the whole world cleaner and greener and cooler and reversing the impact of climate change. That means helping companies that are big polluters move toward cleaner technology. One of the ways you do that is to use your power as a shareholder — and the treasury is a big shareholder in a lot of these companies — to push them to make these green investments. And there are plenty of examples nationwide of investors pushing brown companies to move towards green technologies."

"And you think that's more effective than disinvesting?" Dooris asked.

"Yeah. Here's the problem. If you invest solely in green companies, they don't have a lot of room to cut their emissions," Steiner said. "But if you invest in brown companies and push them to move toward clean technology, even a relatively small reduction in their emissions makes a big difference in the world. And so I think we need to think about that. It's also hard if — as treasury does for the pension fund — you invest in index funds, for example, and you don't get to pick every stock that's in there. You don't get to say, 'Well, I'll only invest in this fund if you pull out all the fossil fuel investments.'"

With more 2024 candidates expected to announce their campaigns in the coming days, The Story plans to profile any other major contenders for state treasurer.

The Story airs at 6:30 p.m. every weekday on KGW. Got a question or comment for the team? Shoot an email to thestory@kgw.com or call and leave a voicemail at 503-226-5090.

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