Three in hunt to oust incumbent state treasurer
Why is Ronnie Chatterji, a tenured economics professor at Duke University, taking a sabbatical to run for N.C. state treasurer?
“It has to be the coolest job in North Carolina,” he says. “It’s an under-the-radar job, but the most important one that you have never heard of.”
Same question for Dimple Ajmera, a Charlotte city councilor who formerly managed money at investment management giant TIAA-CREF.
“Several members of our [party] leadership recruited me to run to flip that seat,” she says, declining to name any leaders. “We have seen how the current treasurer has gambled with over a half million lives just to win political points.”
Then there’s Matt Leatherman, who was a policy advisor for former State Treasurer Janet Cowell and now works for a Boston-based not-for-profit that promotes long-term investing. He says he’s motivated to run to help improve access to health care and ensure retirement security for more than 700,000 state employees and retirees.
Chatterji, Ajmera and Leatherman are three Democrats vying for the nomination in the March 3 primary for the right to face incumbent State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican.
Since being elected in 2016, Folwell has made sure that the treasurer’s job isn’t under the radar. A longtime fixture in state Republican politics, he’s focused on slashing management fees incurred by the state’s $100 billion retirement funds; opposed health system consolidation; and pressed the state’s hospitals to align rates charged to more than 700,000 state employees and retirees with those levied on Medicare recipients.
The latter effort failed after a strong backlash from state health care systems, who contend the effort could reduce access and cause financial harm. Folwell has pledged to renew the effort, which he says is required for the N.C. State Health Plan to remain financially solvent as it pays more than $3.3 billion in annual claims. His efforts have won strong support from the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which has typically lined up with Democratic candidates.
Chatterji, 41, joined Duke in 2006 and took a leave in 2011-12 to work as an adviser to the Council of Economic Advisors during the Obama administration. He’s serving on commissions created by Gov. Roy Cooper to study the state’s transportation infrastructure and encourage entrepreneurship.
The treasurer’s work is suited for a policy nerd, Chatterji says, which is how he describes himself. His research focuses include commercializing medical technologies and building environmentally sustainable businesses.
While he applauds Folwell’s efforts to require hospitals to be more transparent in disclosing prices, Chatterji says he favors a more collaborative approach. “Doing things in a confrontational way doesn’t seem to have yielded benefits,” he says.
Ajmera, 33, was elected to her second term on the Charlotte City Council last year. She criticizes Folwell’s management of state pension funds, which she says has been too conservative by moving billions of dollars into cash or low-yielding investments, thereby missing stock-market gains. Leatherman makes the same argument, saying that Folwell has essentially tried to time the stock market in the manner of a hedge fund, not a pension system.
Folwell says his approach is effective and ensures the state’s ability to pay its pension and health care obligations for decades. He notes that the N.C. retirement system remains heavily invested in equities that have soared in the bull market, while holding major investments that will not lose value should the stock market decline.
Ajmera says she’s more concerned about improving access to health care than about its cost. Folwell’s efforts to pressure hospitals hurt state workers’ ability to get the best care so he could win political points, she says.
Folwell’s efforts on hospital pricing have been endorsed by the state employees association. Gaining that group’s support will be essential for a Democratic nominee to defeat Folwell, Leatherman says. But the association endorsed Folwell last week.
“My critique is that [Folwell] is prone to mistakes,” Leatherman says. He says the failure to convince N.C. hospitals to change their pricing has wound up raising costs for the state and its workforce. (Folwell says that isn’t true.) And Leatherman says the treasurer’s success in slashing fees paid to money managers hasn’t led to better performance. (Again, Folwell disagrees.)
Leatherman’s motivation to run also has an unusual personal back story. State Health Plan programs helped his family as his daughter, Josie, was born prematurely and spent her first 142 days in the hospital in 2017. She’s now a healthy three-year-old. Public service is a way to give back, he says.
Ousting Folwell will be a challenge; he defeated Dan Blue III in 2016 by a 52-47 percent margin. Blue, the son of longtime Democrat state senator Dan Blue Jr., arguably had more name recognition than this year’s challengers, none of whom have run for statewide office.