Cameron Smith’s campaign for secretary of state isn’t his first time answering a “call to service.” He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2003, earning the rank of captain after three tours of duty in Iraq.
Today, he’s answering another call to service: running for secretary of state.
He’s running as a Democrat against two Portland-based legislators and the 2018 Democratic challenger for Rep. Greg Walden’s seat.
If elected, he says he’s looking to explore expanding access to democracy and to build trust in government. That all takes building partnerships and relationships, which he says he has a history of doing.
Smith sees himself as an untraditional candidate. It’s Smith’s first political move, but he says he’s not running as a politician and there’s a hunger for that in leadership right now.
Despite being fresh to the ballot, he’s not new to Salem.
From 2009 to 2013, he was a senior policy adviser for Govs. John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski. In 2013, he was appointed to lead the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Four years later, Gov. Kate Brown chose him to lead the Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS).
Oregon’s veterans’ affairs department is the center of gravity for veterans and military families, but it didn’t have the resources to deliver on its priorities, he says.
“Building broad partnerships was a key part of our focus up and down all levels of government,” he says.
In 2016, Measure 96 passed with 83 percent voter approval, making 1.5 percent of state lottery money available for veteran services.
Smith adds that he also worked with the Legislature, the governor and other stakeholders to ensure that money also goes to nonprofits and community partners to better serve veterans across the state.
Later, while leading the DCBS, he says he modeled a balanced approach to the agency by being an advocate for consumers while also not regulating businesses “out of existence.” During his tenure, the agency’s drug price transparency program captured data about prescription drug prices. With this data, he says the Legislature and governor can tackle the upward-trending drug costs.
Smith says he resigned from his post at DCBS to focus on his campaign so he wouldn’t be perceived as political.
As secretary of state, Smith says he would explore how to expand and protect democracy in Oregon. Although the state has been great with expanding access and is a national leader, he says, Oregon should be innovating more.
He says he’s open to exploring postmark deadline of when ballots can be mailed, which would delay the final count more but could help with rural and overseas voters. Another idea he wants to pursue is allowing 17 year olds to vote in school board elections to increase more civic engagement. And he says the state could also look into election-day registration.
In addition to elections, the secretary of state plays a big role in auditing the state and its agencies. Auditing agencies can help align the right policies and deliver on promises, he says. It’s not about looking under the hood for mistakes, he adds, but how the agency and state can work better.
Having been a director for two agencies, he says auditing can sound like an experience with the IRS, but he always approached working with auditors as a way to work more efficient and address gaps and challenges.
Smith says people are feeling the toxicity of national politics, both physically and mentally, and it’s beginning to crack the foundation of state, local and community politics.
But the office of secretary of state is one way to address this problem.
“Everything the secretary of state is responsible for — both as a statewide leader and for their core responsibilities — goes to much of what is under attack today,” he says. “And how do you truly build trust and confidence in government to be able to better deliver on promises that we have for all Oregonians for those services.”
Although the secretary of state is a partisan office, Smith says the responsibilities aren’t partisan in nature. it’s about bringing “common sense” to challenges, which is the Oregon way, he adds.
To cut through toxic politics, he says a way to intervene is through building relationships and making personal connections.
Of course, one of the more-toxic influences in politics is the role of money in campaigns. In 2018, Brown and former state Rep. Knute Buehler smashed campaign finance records — and overwhelmed the Secretary of State’s website that tracks contributions and expenditures, according to previous reporting by Eugene Weekly.
One of the ballot measures slated for the November election is the Oregon Campaign Finance Limits Amendment. Smith says he hopes voters pass the ballot measure, which would allow local and state governments to limit campaign contributions, require disclosure of contributions and expenditures, and require that political advertisements identify who paid for them.
“There’s too much money in the system today, and it drowns out the voices of everyday Oregonians and discourages everyday Oregonians from running for office,” he says.
If the ballot measure passes and Smith is elected to office, he says creating a more-level playing field for campaign finances alongside the Legislature and governor would be a responsibility for the next secretary of state.
That could take building partnerships and relationships, which he says he has had confidence doing in every position he’s ever held — whether it was standing in front of a platoon or leading Oregon’s veterans’ affairs office.