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State Treasurer job important, overlooked

Dimple Ajmera, Matt Leatherman and Ronnie Chatterji. Dimple Ajmera, Matt Leatherman and Ronnie Chatterji.

Sure, your local civic organization, athletic club or hobbyist group probably has a treasurer — the person with the checkbook who pays the bills, monitors the bank accounts and regularly reports on the income and expenditures of the bake sale, or the fishing rod raffle.

The North Carolina treasurer’s job is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, it’s about a whole lot more than money. 

“If you care about public education, access to health care, the environment or a growing economy, you care about the treasurer’s office,” said Matt Leatherman, one of three Democratic candidates hoping to emerge from the March 3 Primary Election and face incumbent Republican Dale Folwell this fall. “It affects these issues in a wide variety of ways.”

Perhaps the most important function of the office is that it makes retirement benefit payments from the $100 billion pool of retirement savings assets collected over the years by investing those assets, earning a return on them and using that return to cut the checks. 

If those investments don’t earn the targeted return — or, more recently, if they’re invested in environmentally or morally questionable enterprises — people are not going to be happy. 

“The state treasurer is the most important job you’ve never heard of,” said Ronnie Chatterji, another of three Democrats in the primary this year. “If we’re not responsible, improving and growing those assets, the taxpayers are going to be on the hook.”

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But for Leatherman, Chatterji and Dimple Ajmera, the other Dem in the race, the most impactful way they think they can improve the quality of life in North Carolina is about more than money; the treasurer also administers health care benefits for state employees, for a number of local government employees and for educators in North Carolina, which makes it the largest employer-provided coverage system in the state. 

“The biggest issue is access to health care,” said Ajmera, a Charlotte City Council Member. “We have to make sure that people have access to health care in all parts of the state, from urban to rural, from mountains to the coast.”

For Leatherman, that issue is deeply personal. 

“I’m choosing to run because of the lifesaving impact that this office offered for my youngest child,” he said. 

Three years ago, on New Year’s Eve, Leatherman’s wife wasn’t feeling well and became concerned about her pregnancy. She reached out to her doctors, who were unavailable, but as a public school educator, she was able to call an emergency line that was part of her state health plan coverage — and part of the treasurer’s office. Leatherman and his wife made it to the hospital just in time for baby Josie to arrive 13 weeks early and weighing less than 2 pounds. After almost five months in the NICU, Josie was finally well enough to join her family at home. 

“The treasurer’s office was there to do the work it is supposed to do when my family had to make that call,” he said. “I’m choosing to run in this race to stand up for that type of benefit at a time when the incumbent is putting access to healthcare risk.”

Leatherman said that Folwell is attempting to push reimbursement rate cuts onto doctors and hospitals that are so steep that reductions or cessations of service are becoming more and more likely outcomes, especially in rural areas. 

As policy director for former Treasurer Janet Cowell, Leatherman thinks he’s the candidate best positioned to steer the ship of state away from such an outcome, but Chatterji’s credentials leave little doubt that he’s probably up to the task as well. 

“We don’t need a politician for this job, we need a nerd,” he said. “And I am a nerd.”

An economist and Duke University professor of business and public policy, Chatterji also served as a senior economist in President Barack Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers. 

“I never anticipated running for public office but when President Obama hired me to work for his campaign and then in his White House as an economic advisor, it really started changing my perspective,” said Chatterji. “I realized that the person running the numbers can have tremendous influence and a positive impact. I think I bring a very different set of experiences given that’s where I’m coming from. I think that’s why I’ll do a good job for the state.”

What makes Chatterji different, he says, is that he’s also focused on issues one wouldn’t likely associate with the treasurer’s office. 

“The impact of climate change or the importance of diversity and inclusion, I don’t talk about those issues as political or ideological issues. I talk about them because they are risk management issues for the pension fund,” he said. “If we’re investing in companies that aren’t planning for the impacts of climate change in their business, we’re going to lose money on those investments. If we’re investing in companies that don’t have diverse points of view in terms of how they make decisions, we’re going to lose money on those investments.”

Then there’s Ajmera, who at age 33 is the youngest candidate in a very young field — Leatherman is 38, and Chatterji is 41. 

That doesn’t mean Ajmera’s inexperienced, by any means. A certified public accountant, Ajmera worked for TIAA (Teachers, Insurance, and Annuity Association, formerly TIAA-CREF), a nonprofit investment and insurance services provider with more than a trillion dollars in managed assets and a legacy dating back to Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

As an elected official in the state’s largest city, she’s also had her hands in managing a municipal budget upward of $2 billion. 

“I’m a fighter,” said Ajmera, who came to the United States speaking no English only 16 years ago, at age 16. “I championed affordable health care for thousands of local employees and I will do that at the state level. I have a proven record. Traditionally, this office has had a treasurer that has had experience as a certified public accountant and I have worked as a certified public accountant in actually managing the money. It’s not just a theoretical experience, it’s actually managing the money, and that’s what it comes down to — how well you can manage the money and protect taxpayers’ pocketbooks.”

In addition to being probably the youngest slate of candidates in the 2020 Primary Election field from either party, it’s also probably the most racially diverse. 

Of all 53 candidates running for state office — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction, treasurer and commissioners of agriculture, insurance and labor — the overwhelming majority are white, and male. 

Both Chatterji and Ajmera are first-generation Americans of South Asian or Indian ancestry. 

“Women like me, we’re not supposed to be in public office,” Ajmera said. “If you look at the treasurer’s office, you would find there has only been one woman elected to that office. I’ll tell you, there are so many women that have worked as CPAs, have worked in financial services companies, that are qualified for this office. I’ve gone from cleaning motel rooms to help pay for college to learning a multi-billion dollar budget. I’ve served on budget committee at the local level overseeing a $2.4 billion budget. I have the experience of managing the resources. It’s not so much about identity politics, it’s about qualified candidates and I have the experience that people can trust.”

Chatterji, too, thinks North Carolina voters will concentrate more on ability than on antiquated racial or ethnic perceptions. 

“People like me don’t usually run for office,” he said. “I’m the son of immigrants with an academic background and not a political background.”

As an example, Chatterji mentioned another guy with a foreign-sounding name who did pretty OK at the polls back in the day. 

“When I worked for Obama in 2008 in North Carolina, a lot of folks thought that a person with his background and his name couldn’t win,” he said. “But what motivated me is when I went to events and other things around the state, I saw people responding to him and it wasn’t about his background, it was about having a new vision for what leadership could look like. If you would ask the question, ‘Are we ready for an African American president?’ back in 2008 — Barack Obama made people ready. Rather than anyone telling us that they’re ready, you make people ready by giving them an option and being compelling with your background and your experience.”

Facing former House rep and freshman Treasurer Dale Folwell will be an uphill struggle in a big election year, but all three Democrats seem to agree that his record has given them ample arguments against. 

“There is an incumbent in this office, but a very weak one,” said Leatherman. “This incumbent has put access to health care at risk, particularly in rural areas that often are represented by Republican legislators.”

“Let me break that down for you,” said Ajmera. “Our current treasurer has gambled with over half a million lives for political points, he has disrespected our teachers and our police chiefs, he has invested in a company that pollutes our water and he has put his political ambition over what is right. We have to say no to that failed leadership. This is not a partisan issue. It is an issue about quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people.”

There are concrete ways in which the office could improve the quality of life for everyone in North Carolina, according to Chatterji. 

“We have to look at the amount of money we have in cash right now that’s sitting on the sidelines, not appreciating in the stock market,” he said. “That’s money that we could have earned that could help support our pensions. I also think we have to look at the way we’re negotiating with hospitals and how we’re positioned on Medicaid expansion.”

Be it Dimple Ajmera, Ronnie Chatterji or Matt Leatherman, one of them will likewise have to make those arguments not just to Democrats and Republicans, but also to the 33 percent of voters who are registered as unaffiliated.

“I think I can explain what we could do better in my opinion without resorting to the typical ‘red versus blue’ argument because there’s not really a Republican or Democratic way to run the treasurer’s office,” Chatterji said.   

But like every other candidate, in every other race, in every other party, in every other state, they’ll all have to contend with the wildcard effect of President Donald Trump should they make it to November. 

“President Trump’s political fortunes and who the Democratic nominee is will have a tremendous impact on our down-ballot races,” Chatterji said. “I just don’t know if I can confidently predict — as a guy who relies on data to make informed decisions — what’s going to happen. The best thing to do is understand why you’re running as a candidate, the position that you’re going for and how you can have an impact from that position. I don’t think I’ll be changing the things I’m talking about based on what’s happening in the presidential race.”

Leatherman touts Rowan County roots and a willingness to engage voters that may not support his party, but may support his principles. 

“An advantage of the treasurer’s office is that it has a very practical effect on people’s lives, and when you know it as well as I do you can meet people where they are on these issues, whether it’s being able to see the doctor or being able to turn on the tap in their house or being able to take their kids to a school fit for learning,” he said. “When you meet them in that place, they’re ready to listen. I feel comfortable meeting people who have supported Donald Trump before and frankly may choose to support him again, meeting them on their issues and winning their vote in a practical way.”

Ajmera insists the next treasurer of the State of North Carolina isn’t going to be decided by what Trump does or doesn’t do, or what Democrats do or don’t do to him. 

“North Carolinians will decide who the best candidate is for the state treasurer’s office,” she said. “I have confidence in our voters that they will make the right decision when it comes to qualifications and when comes to experience that they can trust.”



Dimple Ajmera

• Age: 33 

• Residence: Charlotte

• Occupation: Certified Public Accountant

• Political experience: Three-year member of Charlotte City Council

Ronnie Chatterji

• Age:  41

• Residence: Durham

• Occupation: Professor, Duke University

• Political experience: First campaign

Matt Leatherman

• Age:  38

• Residence: Wake County

• Occupation: Former treasurer’s office employee

• Political experience: First campaign

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