Politically Thinking: Treasurer’s race offers intrigue

The election for Vermont treasurer could be one of the most interesting and competitive races in November.
The incumbent treasurer and Democratic candidate, Beth Pearce, was appointed in January 2011 by Gov. Shumlin when he named her predecessor, Jeb Spaulding, to his cabinet as secretary of administration. Pearce is a professional manager with more than 30 years of experience in public financial administration. She served as deputy treasurer in Vermont for seven years and before that in a variety of positions in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. As far as I know, Pearce has never run for elected office, nor has she been affiliated with a political party.
The Republican candidate, Wendy Wilton, is currently the city treasurer in Rutland, a position to which she was elected in 2007. Before that, Wilton served one term in the Vermont Senate. When Wilton became Rutland’s treasurer five years ago, the city’s finances were in a mess. Wilton has overseen significant improvements in Rutland’s financial management, and the city recently received its first clean auditor’s report in 32 years. Wilton is perhaps best known statewide as an outspoken opponent of the Shumlin Administration’s plans for health care reform.
Vermont’s treasurer is much more of an administrative position than a policy-making position. The treasurer is responsible for overseeing the state’s cash and investments, issuing state bonds, and managing the pension plans for active and retired state employees and teachers. Decisions about how much the state spends for what purposes, how tax money is raised, and how much money the state should borrow are made by the governor and the Legislature, not by the treasurer.
This election is interesting for several reasons. Beth Pearce, although clearly a highly competent financial manager, has no prior elective political experience. The skill set needed to win an election is not necessarily the skill set needed to handle the administrative responsibilities of the treasurer’s office. Can Pearce develop the skills needed to be elected treasurer by November?
Wendy Wilton, although running for an office that has little to do with health care reform, wants to make the election for treasurer a referendum on a single-payer health care plan. Apparently Wilton and other Republicans want to claim that, if she is elected treasurer in the fall, her election would signify strong public skepticism about moving forward toward a single-payer system. Wilton is likely to intensify her focus on health care if the Supreme Court rules the individual mandate unconstitutional and strikes down those parts of the federal health care law that would provide funding for states to establish health benefit exchanges.
Pearce will benefit from what are likely to be strong performances by Democrats above her on the ballot. President Obama, Sen. Sanders, and Rep. Welch are all but certain to win in Vermont, and by substantial margins. Gov. Shumlin is favored to win re-election over his Republican challenger, Randy Brock. Some of the support for these well-known and popular Democratic candidates will translate down to Beth Pearce in her first run for public office.
Wilton’s campaign will be part of a Republican focus on the “down-ballot” statewide offices. The GOP believes that its candidates could be competitive in the races for treasurer, auditor and attorney general. Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is another all-but-certain victor. If Republicans could win two or three other statewide positions in addition to Scott’s, they would hold at least half of those offices, an accomplishment worth noting in a year in which the top offices in Vermont are likely to go Democratic.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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