Gone are the days when North Carolina's treasurer would fill time overseeing municipal finances and the pensions of government retirees.
Richard Moore, the outgoing treasurer, has been a frequent guest on CNBC, a board member of the New York Stock Exchange and a runner-up for the Democratic nomination for governor. Expect Moore's successor to try to maintain a similar profile.
Next month, voters will choose between two candidates looking to leave the state legislature for the treasurer's office. Democrat Janet Cowell and Republican Bill Daughtridge describe big plans for the office, and both have been mentioned as candidates for higher office someday.
The treasurer is the state's top financial official, overseeing a roughly $70 billion pension fund and payments to retirees. The treasurer helps oversee state and local debt, manages an unclaimed property fund and regulates state-chartered banks.
Daughtridge, 55, points to his leadership of a family-owned business empire based in Rocky Mount. He says the treasurer should push for more spending on infrastructure and a more attractive business climate.
Cowell, 40, says the job fits the skills she has developed working in businesses in Asia, New York and North Carolina. She wants to focus on growing the pension fund, among the largest in the country.
The two have different backgrounds, yet they often agree on issues facing the office.
They say the treasurer should have more options when investing the pension fund, which has long maintained a tilt toward risk-averse investments such as U.S. Treasury bonds. They want to recruit experts to volunteer for an expanded advisory board. They say the office should be more transparent about how the fund is invested.
Cowell said state employees who help manage the pension fund should be paid more, closer to what they might make in the private sector.
The legislature has resisted that idea.
“Trying to save $100,000 on salary with implications that can cost you $700 million – assuming that person can make that amount of difference – it's penny-wise, pound-foolish,” she said.
Daughtridge said he would draw on his experience running Daughtridge Gas & Oil Co., started by his father, and several related companies that distribute fuel, operate convenience stores and provide other services.
“Being a business owner, I actually create jobs,” he said. “I maintain a payroll. I manage budgets. I create capital. I take care of customers.”
Both candidates point to their backgrounds in other ways. Daughtridge returned to Rocky Mount in 1979 after living in Houston for two years. He has served on boards for the N.C. Symphony and the cancer hospital at UNC.
“The treasurer needs to have a good overview of what the state's about,” he said.
Cowell said her experience working overseas is increasingly important as financial markets become more international. In the early 1990s, while working in Asia, she analyzed stocks for Lehman Brothers and another firm.
“Having spent about five years of my life overseas, having the relationships and networks from (the) Wharton (School of Business) – I'm going to China after the election to sort of re-immerse myself in that market – I think that's an important differentiator,” she said.
Both say they want to make changes to how the state and local governments manage debt.
A former Raleigh City Council member, Cowell said the Local Government Commission – a board that ensures localities can pay their debt – should spend more time helping smaller cities that can't afford large financial staffs.
Daughtridge said the state should ask voter approval more often before issuing debt, a proposal that could lower the state's debt payments but would require expensive campaigns to win over voters.
Neither candidate rose to a high-profile position in the legislature.
Cowell, serving in the Senate's Democratic majority, has been co-chair of a budget subcommittee and was ranked the 25th most effective out of 50 senators in a 2007 survey. She sponsored bills to promote electronics recycling, to conserve energy in state buildings and to increase protections for victims of domestic violence.
Daughtridge, serving in the House's Republican minority, has been vice chair of the commerce committee. He was ranked the 50th most effective out of 120 representatives in the same survey. He sponsored bills to expand business tax credits, to make it easier for law enforcement to carry concealed handguns and to continue incentives for business recruitment. Ryan Teague Beckwith contributed to this story.