Managing Money, Changing the World

Ronnie Chatterji’s insurgent campaign in North Carolina seeks to expand thinking around what a state treasurer can accomplish.

by Brittany Gibson July 16, 2020

State treasurer is one of those wonky-sounding jobs that in fact carries a great deal of power. Nowhere is this truer than in North Carolina, where Ronnie Chatterji is running for the post as a progressive insurgent. Chatterji, 41, a tenured business school professor at Duke University and former senior staffer for President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, was intrigued to learn that the job includes deciding where to invest the state’s $100 billion pension fund, as well as serving in several other powerful state posts, including the North Carolina State Board of Education, the State Board of Community Colleges, and the State Banking Commission.

A first-time candidate, Chatterji hopes to use the financial power of the treasurer’s office to influence issues such as climate change, economic development, diversity, and transparency of operations, both in his own office and in the companies where he’s placing state funds. This would be a new activist role for the usually sleepy office, and a new role for him. As an academic, he thought his strength was as an adviser and researcher. If Chatterji wins in November, he will be the first-ever Indian American elected to statewide office in North Carolina.

“I thought if I was going to be in public service, I would be the person running the numbers,” Chatterji says. “I think we’re probably conditioned to think of ourselves in these roles, probably to our detriment sometimes, but I didn’t see a lot of people like me running for office, so I thought I’ll be the numbers guy.”

President Barack Obama’s historic win changed his idea of who could run for office. “What I saw with President Obama was because of his diverse background—which is completely unique, out of this world, in the contemporary American political situation—people really related to him. And I thought maybe because I’m so different and there’s not a lot of people out there like me, maybe I can help create the new playbook and create some of that trust,” Chatterji says.

Almost ten years after his time in the White House, Chatterji has found a way to be both the numbers guy and the candidate, following the trend of insurgent Democratic candidates inspired to run for state and local offices across the country. Today, Democrats hold 25 of the 51 attorney general posts, 25 of the secretaries of state, and 15 state treasurer jobs. This becomes all the more important in an era when Trump is abusing the presidency, and Democrats need to rebuild their bench.

“We’re not paying as much attention to these state and local races. They’re not as glamorous, they’re not as sexy, and they’re really hard to do online fundraising for because the issues are very local and often people don’t know the person you’re running against. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is where the center of action is with everything that we’re talking about, everything we care about,’” Chatterji says.

Besides using state pension money to influence corporate stances on climate change, Chatterji targets several other points of leverage. Through the Local Government Commission, the state treasurer is responsible for approving all state and local bonds, which can affect funding for building infrastructure, broadband, water, sewer, and roads. He can also invest state pension funds in local enterprises, functioning almost as a state investment bank—giving priority to his signature issues of diversity, transparency, and climate action, as well as local economic development.

Chatterji looks forward to working with other activist state treasurers across the country. California Treasurer Fiona Ma has used her office to fight for more women board members in the companies her state invests in. In Massachusetts, Deborah Goldberg has used her role on the Clean Water Trust to get clean drinking water in schools. And Texas’s retirement fund, run by Chief Investment Officer Jase Auby, is also home to an Emerging Manager Program, which recruits diverse and young investors right out of business school through its partnerships across Texas and with Howard University.

Through collaborating with other state treasurers and other institutional investors, Chatterji says, it will be possible not only to influence corporate impact on the global climate, but also impact future product research and development. Chatterji adds that these partnerships can also make use of shareholder resolutions to hold companies accountable on these goals.

Another issue is greater transparency when it comes to corporate political spending, also called dark money. Companies, through creative accounting or sometimes through secondary organizations, have many ways they can hide how they’re spending money to push for a desired candidate or law. “I would demand more transparency on [dark money], because those are risks when they’re exposed on the front page of the local paper, that you’re donating to campaigns that might be at odds with what your CEO is saying,” Chatterji says.

Chatterji takes the responsibilities of the treasurer’s office personally. His family depended on similar state-run plans when he was growing up in Upstate New York. His father as a university professor and his mother as a schoolteacher both worked in the public system, and the family grew up on the state health care plan while his parents also paid into the state pension fund.

Chatterji says he and his sister grew up living the American dream, thanks to the stability of his parents’ professions and their benefits. However, today he’s keenly aware that not every immigrant family is as fortunate as he was. By running for treasurer, Chatterji knows he cannot impact the salaries of these public employees in the present, but he can be responsible for ensuring they have a good pension when it comes time to retire.

In fact, when Chatterji recently asked his parents about the details of those plans, he found out that they didn’t know who was in charge of those programs. “They didn’t worry that one day their pension wouldn’t be there,” Chatterji says of his parents. “They assumed someone was taking care of that. The promise we make to state employees is about the benefits you get in their pension and health care, and they assume someone will be managing that. That’s a huge responsibility.”

In March, Chatterji won a competitive three-way primary, where he earned 35.8 percent of the vote. The NC AFL-CIO, North Carolina Association of Educators, CWA, and several other labor unions endorsed Chatterji. So did several newspapers, including the influential News & Observer. The broad coalition of support for the first-time candidate even surprised some supporters.

“I didn’t have a lot of expectation because he’s not a politician. And I didn’t know what his skill set would be in that area,” says Diane Robertson, a member of the DNC finance committee, who has known Chatterji since 2011. “I think he is a naturally positive, confident, and generous person. I think that’s his nature and he takes that nature into his work, which then makes people really gravitate to him and really trust him.”

Chatterji also recognizes that trust is crucial in this race. Although it’s a less politically polarizing office, Chatterji has to explain to voters why he should be trusted with the state’s money. If elected to office, Chatterji sees increasing his office’s transparency, as well as statewide travel, as the key to continuing these relationships made during the campaign.

The treasurer already releases a quarterly financial report, but Chatterji would like to expand this disclosure to include metrics on his goals in incorporating equity and sustainability factors in his investing, the board member diversity in the companies he’s investing in as well as diversity in his own office staff, and updates on the coalition of investors he hopes to build.

In the general election, Chatterji will be up against Republican incumbent Dale Folwell. Usually, voters are already familiar with major state politicians on the ballot, but not this one. Most people think of the state treasurer the same way Chatterji’s parents did—not at all.

Thomas Mills, a political consultant and writer for the PoliticsNC blog, says that because the state is so competitive, down-ballot races get overshadowed and campaigning will get more challenging as November gets closer. “We don’t see Campbell’s soup ads in North Carolina in September and October, there’s sensory overload from political ads,” he says. Not being able to hold traditional campaign rallies and in-person events because of the coronavirus adds another layer of complexity to the campaign’s strategy.

“We’re not paying as much attention to these state and local races … This is where the center of action is with everything we care about.” -Ronnie Chatterji


But Team Chatterji has embraced technology and social media the way other young, progressive candidates across the country have, holding Zoom events and digital town halls, and posting regular updates to his campaign social media accounts. There are currently eight volunteers working with the campaign helping to coordinate further voter outreach, with plans to increase the team size as Election Day gets closer.

Folwell also has an online presence but does significantly fewer digital events and has fewer original posts. And the Folwell campaign website hasn’t been updated since his 2016 election (one page still says Election Day will be on November 8). While their campaigning and outreach styles are the most immediate examples of Folwell and Chatterji’s differences, it’s representative of their policy differences as well. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, Folwell bragged about how conservatively the pension fund has been managed since he took office in 2016’s bull economy. And when it comes to the coronavirus, Folwell’s advice to North Carolina residents is to spend money, if they can.

Since the start of the pandemic and its economic impact, the treasurer’s office hasn’t issued any press releases on how the office plans to adapt its pension fund management or support public education or community banks, which will depend on government leadership to recover. Instead, Folwell has criticized Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for temporarily prohibiting people’s utility services from being shut off.

There’s no guarantee that voters are looking for more wonky details on how the treasurer does his job, but for some people, Chatterji’s planning and enthusiasm will stand out. “My attitude toward the whole thing is to be a happy warrior,” Chatterji says. “I try to have fun when I’m campaigning and talking to folks because there’s so much, particularly on the Democratic side … [and] I try to be pragmatic to get to the goals we want. I have progressive aims in the things I care about, and I think, ‘OK, how can we get there?’”

This article was originally published by The American Prospect, to read the original source, click here.