Democrats running for NC treasurer differ on changes to state pension fund

The incumbent

Janet Cowell, a Democrat, surprised many last year when she announced she wouldn’t seek a third term.

The candidates

Dan Blue III and Ron Elmer are running for the Democratic nomination. The winner will face former Employment Security Division leader Dale Folwell, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

About the office

The treasurer is a key figure for state employees because the office oversees both the State Health Plan and the state retirement plan. The treasurer’s agency also serves as a financial adviser for state and local government.

Why this race matters

With Cowell stepping down, Republicans hope to pick up another Council of State seat. Democratic primary voters must choose between two candidates with sharply different views on how to manage the state pension fund.

Where the candidates stand

The two Democrats disagree on how the state pension system should handle its investment portfolio.

Elmer proposes to “fire Wall Street” and have employees of the state treasurer’s office manage the fund instead of hiring third-party investment managers.

He says Cowell is spending too much on contracts with outside firms. “I see a tremendous opportunity to save the state as much as a billion dollars a year,” Elmer said.

Blue – son of longtime state Sen. Dan Blue Jr. – doesn’t think such a sweeping change is wise.

“The pension fund and the state treasurer’s office owe a fiduciary obligation to the retirees to find the best managers they can find, whether they’re in the treasurer’s office in North Carolina, or in London, New York or Chicago,” Blue said. “We don’t want to take on additional risk.”

Elmer’s plan involves converting the pension fund to an index fund, meaning the investments are designed to closely track the performance of a stock market index such as the Standard & Poor’s 500. He says that could be overseen by five or six employees working in the treasurer’s office.

The political arm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina has endorsed Elmer, calling his pension plan “sorely needed.” But Cowell has endorsed Blue, saying he’s “a leader who will continue to build upon our progress and protect meaningful retirement and health benefits” for state employees.

Elmer also wants to create a board of trustees to join the treasurer in overseeing the pension fund. He says the current system, in which the elected treasurer is the fund’s sole trustee, is troubling because it could lead to “pay-to-play politics.” He said representatives from SEANC should serve on the board.

“The stakeholders need to have a seat at the table – it’s their money,” he said.

Blue wants to focus on the State Health Plan, which is facing increasing costs.

“I think the most pressing issues are going to be around stabilizing the State Health Plan,” he said.

Blue says his career background on Wall Street and in the healthcare industry “makes me suitable for this wonky position.” Elmer points to his time managing billion-dollar pension funds for major companies as proof that his approach will work.

“I just want to do what I did at First Citizens Bank and Warner-Lambert (pharmaceuticals),” he said.

While the treasurer doesn’t typically deal with hot-button political issues, some have surfaced in the Democratic primary contest.

Blue’s campaign released a questionnaire that Elmer filled out in 2012 for a Tea Party group, pointing out that Elmer said he favored voter ID requirements.

Asked about the statement this week, Elmer said he only backs voter ID if it can be done without a “burden” to voters. “We’ve clearly seen that there are burdens in these (North Carolina) requirements,” he said.

Meanwhile, Elmer has criticized Blue for holding a campaign fundraiser in New York City, calling it “a quick pay-out from Wall Street.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

Dan Blue III

Age: 42

Education: Law degree, MBA and bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering from Duke University

Professional experience: Attorney at Blue, Stephens & Fellers; former investment banker at Bear Stearns; former executive director of the Pharmaceutical Institute

Political resume: Former chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party

Family: Married to Tracy Blue; two children

Website: bluefornc.com

Ron Elmer

Age: 48

Education: MBA in finance and accounting from New York University, bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Oklahoma

Professional experience: Owns an accounting and financial planning firm in Cary; previously managed investments for BB&T, First Citizens Bank and Warner-Lambert pharmaceutical company

Political resume: Ran unsuccessfully for treasurer in 2012

Family: Married to Cori Elmer; two children

Website: elmerfortreasurer.com