OP-ED | In Year of Outsider, Treasurer’s Race Will Reward Pair of Newcomers
In some states, elections in non-presidential years can be a snooze fest. But not in Connecticut. Not only do we have state legislative elections in all the even years — as most states do — but in the even years between presidential elections, we have races for the statewide constitutional offices.
The governor’s campaign typically gets all the coverage but four of the five down-ballot races could be interesting to watch. The lieutenant governor’s race is of no interest to me because, as I have argued before, that office is totally useless, an obvious waste of taxpayer money and should be abolished. Indeed, I wonder how a fiscal conservative like state Sen. Joe Markley can run for LG with a straight face. He ought to run on a platform of eliminating his own office. If he did, he’d get my vote. But I digress ...
Three of the other offices (comptroller, secretary of the state and attorney general) are important but look only mildly intriguing. The fourth — state treasurer — has captured the bulk of my attention because ... that’s where all the money is. The treasurer is essentially a money manager, overseeing the state’s bonded debt obligations and $32.5 billion in investments associated with the pensions of Connecticut’s 212,000 state, municipal, and school district employees, retirees, and their survivors.
The depth of the treasurer’s responsibilities is staggering in sheer numbers alone: billions in assets and hundreds of thousands of human lives directly dependent on the good judgement of your office. And of course the management of the state’s debt takes on increased importance as it continues to grow to the point that it affects our bond ratings.
The current treasurer, Denise Nappier, will be completing 20 years on the job. As the first African-American woman elected to statewide office, she was something of a groundbreaker. Whether she has performed well depends on whom you talk to. But I’m glad she’s decided to retire. Her last race four years ago was a bizarre one marked by her refusal to debate her opponent, now-gubernatorial candidate Tim Herbst, rambling editorial board interviews, and a bizarre campaign video with top state officials in which she appeared awkward and confused.
Unfortunately, the office of treasurer has a rather sordid history. In 1998, Nappier cleaned house, defeating incumbent Republican Paul Silvester, who was subsequently convicted of shaking down investment firms. Silvester was appointed by a fellow crook, the disgraced Gov. John Rowland, to fill the unexpired term of Christopher Burnham, who resigned to take a job in the private sector.
Fortunately, there are four major candidates — two Democrats and two Republicans — running to replace Nappier. And two of them are pretty well qualified. One of the GOPers, Thad Gray, lives in my town. I reached out to his campaign for an interview but, alas, received no response.
I won’t hold that against him. Of the office-seekers, he is by far the best qualified. With the exception of one of the Democrats, the treasurer candidates have touted themselves as newcomers to politics. Even as the candidate endorsed by the convention, Gray can genuinely make the claim of outsider. He has made a 35-year a career in the private sector of performing the most important job the treasurer has: managing money.
Granted, managing money in the public sector is not the same. Higher risks are more acceptable in the private sector. There is an added layer of responsibility when investing public monies that feed defined-benefit pensions. But I’m convinced Gray can make the adjustment from chief investment officer at Abbott Capital, where he managed assets on behalf of pension funds and nonprofit-sector endowments. One of Gray’s key talking points is that if we don’t improve the performance of the pension funds and make other structural changes, then those funds will crowd out other critical spending. Amen.
His primary opponent, state Sen. Art Linares of Westbrook, seems like a decent guy. The 29-year-old’s main claim to fame is that he co-chairs the Higher Education and Employment Committee and that in 2016 he took out a full-page ad in the Stamford Advocate to propose to his-now wife, Democratic state Rep. Caroline Simmons. Since the two cannot live together without one of them residing out-of-district, something had to give. They’re expecting their first child. It’s a nice story but that’s about it.
The Democratic campaign is getting interesting. Party-endorsed candidate Shawn Wooden is battling an aggressive primary challenge from Dita Bhargava, a former managing director in high-finance whose resume includes stints at RBS, Bear Stearns and Citigroup. A native of Canada whose parents emigrated to that country, she touts herself as pro-business and stands opposed to tax increases — positions not typically associated with Connecticut Democrats.
Wooden is an attorney at a prominent Hartford firm. His problem is that he’s viewed as part of the Hartford political machine. He was president of the city council during much of the capital city’s fiscal decline that resulted in a recent state bailout. And he wants to manage the state’s pension fund?
This is a vulnerability that Bhargava is trying mightily to exploit. She has moved aggressively to challenge Wooden to a debate. She is even going after him for his role in the questionable deal to build the Hartford Yard Goats baseball stadium — a deal that also allowed the team to skirt the city’s minimum wage laws. In other words, Bhargava is moving on Wooden like a hedge-fund manager would on an opportunity to make billions.
I’d say this is not an insider’s year in Hartford. The two leading gubernatorial candidates, Ned Lamont and Mark Boughton, have never worked in the executive branch. Lamont was a local elected official in Greenwich and Boughton was a state legislator before becoming mayor of Danbury. People are sick of business as usual. Whether that translates into cleaning house, as Nappier did 20 years ago, remains to be seen. But I’d say it bodes ill for Linares and Wooden.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at [email protected]
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