State Treasurer Janet Cowell, one of 10 top statewide elected officials, said in a message to supporters Tuesday that she would not seek re-election, setting off an immediate scramble for the position.
Cowell, a Democrat, is in her second four-year term as state treasurer, an office that oversees the state’s $90 billion pension fund and is the financial adviser to the state and to local governments. Her office also runs the state employee health plan.
Cowell is a former state senator and Raleigh city council member.
“This has been one of the more difficult decisions in my life,” she said in the message, sent by email. “I’ve prayed about it and discussed it with friends and family. I intend to serve out my term through 2016.”
Cowell, 47, was a top recruitment target for Democrats looking for someone to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr next year. When asked about her plans, Cowell insisted this year that she was seeking reelection.
She had been raising money for a reelection campaign. Reports show she had $221,360 in her campaign account at the end of June.
Cowell could not be reached Tuesday. Her spokesman said in an email that her statement “reflects all she has to say at this time,” and that she is traveling this week and was not available.
Cowell did not mention specific future plans in her email.
“Public service, both in or out of elective office, will continue to be a part of my life,” she wrote. “I look forward to the next adventure. I want to thank you for all your support.”
Cowell’s decision opens a seat on the Council of State, the board of statewide elected officials that makes decisions about a range of issues, including state property.
Names of potential candidates for the office began to circulate almost immediately.
Edgar Starnes, a Republican former state House member who went to work as a lobbyist in Cowell’s office earlier this year, said he is thinking about running.
“I’m not an announced candidate,” he said. “I’m not ruling it out.”
Cowell’s announcement surprised everyone, Starnes said. “It’s just going to take a little while to digest everything – to see who’s interested, then weigh my qualifications and experience against other people who are considering running.”
Former state Rep. Dale Folwell, now an assistant secretary in the state Commerce Department, registered to run for treasurer in 2008 but dropped out of the primary.
“This is something that continues to interest me,” said Folwell, who runs the Division of Employment Security. Folwell said he was not prepared to make an announcement, but would do so by Thanksgiving.
On the Democratic side, Michael Weisel, a Raleigh lawyer who has run twice before for the office said he’s considering another campaign.
Supporters urged him to enter the race, Weisel said in an email. “As events unfold, I will continue to speak with supporters and consult with my family, to determine a future course of action,” he wrote.
Other Republicans mentioned are former state House member and current Secretary of Administration Bill Daughtridge, and Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine.
State budget director Lee Roberts, who is registered unaffiliated, has also been mentioned. He would not comment Tuesday on a possible run.
Daughtridge ran for treasurer in 2008, losing to Cowell.
Cowell won treasurer elections fairly easily. Her biggest battles seemed to be with the State Employees Association of North Carolina when it was led by former executive director Dana Cope. SEANC fought with Cowell over the health plan and her handling of the pension fund.
Ardis Watkins, a lobbyist for SEANC, said those disagreements were never personal. “The issue to SEANC was never about Janet Cowell,” Watkins said. “This issue has always been about the retirement funds.”
In her announcement, Cowell touted some of the accomplishments of her office. The state pension fund stands at $90 billion, Cowell said, up from $60 billion in 2009. She called the pension fund “one of the most solid” in the country.
Patsy Keever, State Democratic Party chairwoman, said she was sorry Cowell is not seeking reelection.
“She has been a tremendous public servant and our state is better off because of her hard work,” Keever said in a statement. “We could use more Janet Cowells in Raleigh and I wish her the very best as we look for a candidate who will continue her record of accomplishment.”
Republicans said they are looking for candidates to run to replace her. Winning the seat is a high priority, they said.
“The North Carolina Republican Party will aggressively pursue the open seat for North Carolina treasurer,” GOP Chairman Hasan Harrnett said in a prepared statement. “This important role in our state government is responsible for keeping North Carolina fiscally strong and maintaining fiduciary oversight of our state, a position well aligned with the priorities of the North Carolina Republican Party.”