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Former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof makes campaign for Oregon governor official

Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Nick Kristof speaks with the media, answering questions about his campaign for Oregon governor, Oct. 27, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church of Portland.

The former journalist says he’s uniquely positioned in an increasingly crowded Democratic field, and that he meets the state’s three year residency requirement.

If his intentions weren’t clear when he created a campaign committee and quit his job as an internationally known newspaper columnist, they are now: Nick Kristof is running for Oregon governor.

After months of speculation, and increasingly meaningful steps toward a run, Kristof made it official on Wednesday.

Kristof, who has no political experience, framed his decades of experience at the New York Times as a boon to Oregon’s current troubles. Unveiling a campaign website and an announcement video, Kristof, a Yamhill native, made it clear he plans to carry the political outsider mantle as he vies for governor.

“Nothing will change until we stop moving politicians up the career ladder year after year, even though they refuse to step up to the problems Oregon faces,” he said in his campaign video.

Kristof joins a Democratic primary field already crowded with established political names, including House Speaker Tina Kotekand state Treasurer Tobias Read. There’s also already an independent candidate running, Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson, who recently announced that she’ll seek to gather enough signatures to make the November general election ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.

Kristof was a foreign correspondent and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. In his campaign advertisement, he said he “spent a lifetime shining a light in the darkest corners of the globe.” Kristof said it broke his heart when he returned “from crisis abroad to find crisis at home.”

“I’m not a politician. I haven’t spent years in office. I’m not a lobbyist. If voters want someone like that, they have a lot of other choices,” Kristof said at a Wednesday press conference. “What I do bring is a lifetime spent with folks in the trenches doing my best trying to address problems to make life better for people who are struggling.”

It’s clear Kristof plans to make economic insecurity a theme of his run. Along with his wife, former Times journalist Sheryl WuDunn, he authored a book called “Tightrope,” published in 2020, that explores how so many people Kristof knew as a child in Oregon grew up into homeless or died young.

“Unaffordable housing, weak mental health support, inadequate education and a politics that has treated addiction not as a disease but as a crime,” Kristof said in his campaign video. “If you want to see what happens when our politics so badly fails the people it’s supposed to serve, just take a walk through downtown Portland.”

But when it came to how he would address such entrenched problems with policy, he was more vague.

“I don’t have perfect solutions. These are hard issues,” he told reporters Wednesday. “But I do have a willingness to tackle them, and I don’t think the political class here has been able to resolve them either.”

Instead, Kristof said, he understands what is happening to people at the grassroot level and has seen what has happened to people during the pandemic.

“I had a dear friend who was homeless who overdosed 17 times, and I was terrified for her and her young child,” he said. “And there are people like that all around the state.”

If elected, Kristof said, he would rely on his skillset honed as a journalist.

“I think maybe the most effective thing a governor can use to bring about change — and I think Tom McCall, in some way, reflected this as a former journalist — it’s an ability to articulate an agenda for the state,” he said. “To rally people behind it, to use the bully pulpit and the communication ability we tend to cultivate in journalism and then use that to bring people together and build a consensus to address some of these problems.”

Kristof grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, about 30 miles southwest of Portland. He’s spent most of his adult life in other countries and on the East Coast. But he recently moved back to the family farm.

One of the likely biggest sticking points in his campaign, however, will be just how much of an outsider Kristof really is. Oregon has a three-year residency requirement for its governors, and Kristof voted as a New York resident last year.

When Willamette Week raised questions about whether Kristof meets the state’s residency requirements, he responded with a15-page legal opinion making his case.

“Though he left Oregon for college and has maintained a residence outside Oregon to accommodate employment in New York, he has also kept a residence in Oregon, has maintained extensive contacts with the state (including regular physical presence), and has considered Oregon to be his home at all times,” the document states.

At the press conference, Kristof said he shouldn’t have voted in New York.

“I probably should have changed my registration,” he said. “I wasn’t focused on the paperwork. I was focused on removing President Trump and voting for Joe Biden.”

Later, he added, “What I do know is I’ve been an Oregonian since I was picking strawberries and beans in the summer. That I have property here, paid taxes here. That I’m an Oregonian in my soul and my bones, and that is why I’m running.”

Deborah Scroggin, director of elections with the Oregon Secretary of State, said her office would perform “a reasonable due diligence review to confirm the information in the filing” when asked about Kristof and the state’s residency requirements.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake