The state treasurer’s primary may not seem as intriguing as presidential or gubernatorial races, but it’s one of the most important down-ballot contests.
The state’s chief banker manages nearly $100 billion in state employee retiree funds, works with counties to administer bonds that cover needs like affordable housing, and runs health care plans for all state employees.
Republican incumbent Dale Folwell is running unopposed in his primary. Three Democrats are vying for his seat: Dimple Ajmera, a certified public accountant and at-large Charlotte city council member; Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji, an economist and tenured professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business; and Matt Leatherman, former policy director for the last Democratic state treasurer, Janet Cowell.
(If you’re reading this story, get ready to feel slightly less intelligent because these candidates are some real nerds.)
All three candidates, who are 41 or younger, are running for an office that hasn’t seen much diversity in its history. If she were to win in the general, Ajmera would be just the second woman to serve as state treasurer. Ajmera or Chatterji would also become the first Asian-American elected to any statewide office.
All three support expanding Medicaid and improving access to affordable health care. All three also want to improve the management of the state pension plan, which administers benefits to government employees.
In separate interviews, two — Chatterji and Leatherman — say that one of their first items of business would be hiring a chief investment officer. That position would be apolitical, and would essentially help guide investment decisions for the state.
All three have criticized Folwell for failing to invest more aggressively and losing out on billions from a record stock market run from 2017 until now. The Wall Street Journal profiled Folwell’s controversial investment decisions in a 2018 story headlined “This Man Started a Tussle Over North Carolina’s $96 Billion Pension Fund.”
“With a little over three years under our belt, with a focus on making and saving money, we realize there’s more to do,” Folwell said in an interview.
Because the Democratic candidates don’t have the name recognition of other high-profile races, endorsements play a big role, says Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist.
Civil rights groups like Equality NC and NC AFL-CIO endorsed Chatterji, as did newspapers like Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer. Ajmera has the support of well-known leaders like Hugh McColl and Harvey Gantt, and groups like the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Indy Week has endorsed Leatherman, as have politicians such as Spencer mayor Jonathan Williams and Greensboro city councilwoman Sharon Hightower.
“If you have no information on these candidates but you’re a member of a group that is sending you a newsletter that says, ‘we like so and so for this reason,’ you’re likely to go with that,” Heberlig says.
Ajmera, 33, immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager. A graduate of the University of Southern California, Ajmera worked in consulting for Deloitte, then as a CPA at TIAA, before going into politics.
Since 2017, Ajmera has served on Charlotte City Council. During that time, she’s been on the city’s budget committee, responsible for managing a budget of about $2.6 billion. On city council, she helped lower health care premiums for city employees making less than $55,000.
Ajmera was recruited to run by Lillian’s List, the nonprofit that works to get women elected to public office. She announced her plans to run for treasurer in December.
Since then, she has criticized Folwell for failing to expand Medicaid and for investing the state pension funds in a company that pollutes the Cape Fear River.
“He might be generating short return on investment, however, in the long run, we are going to be faced with liabilities and losses,” Ajmera said of Folwell. “That’s not the kind of gambling you do with retirement funds.”
A Cornell graduate with a Ph.D. in economics from University of California-Berkley, Chatterji, 41, moved to North Carolina in 2006 to teach at Duke’s business school. In 2010, he took a leave to work as a senior economist on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Chatterji lives in Durham with his wife and three kids. As a kid growing up in Upstate New York, Chatterji says he took for granted the fact that his parents, teachers who worked for the state, had good health care. That ultimately drove his decision to run for public office in North Carolina, he says.
“I thought, you know what? I’m good with numbers. I’m a nerd. I can go fix this behind the scenes and make this work so other families have the experience I did,” Chatterji says.
That sentiment helped shape Chatterji’s campaign slogan, #TheNerdWeNeed, which he uses in social media and in paid advertisements.
Since announcing his candidacy last April, Chatterji has been traveling the state to share his story, meet with voters, and explain the importance of the treasurer’s race.
“Every speech I give I say this is the most important job that no one has ever heard of. The treasurer in North Carolina has an amazing set of responsibilities,” Chatterji says.
“We’re one of a handful of states where the treasurer is the sole elected trustee of the $100 billion pension fund.”
Leatherman, 38, grew up in Rowan County and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003. He has a master’s in public policy from Columbia.
It’s a competitive primary race, one in which generally the candidates have similar values, Leatherman says. What set him apart, he adds, is his experience in the office he’s running for: He served as policy director under Cowell, the previous Democratic state treasurer, from 2015-2017.
“Voters out there want more than just (candidates) who talk the talk. They want candidates who can walk the walk,” Leatherman says. “I’ve demonstrated through my experience the ability to do that.”
Since his time with Cowell, Leatherman has been the research director of a nonpartisan research group called FCLT Global. He launched his treasurer campaign last June.
A father of two, Leatherman says his personal experiences ultimately drove him to run for this office, though.
On New Years Eve 2016, his wife, who was 27 weeks pregnant at the time, woke up feeling sick. Because it was a holiday, she couldn’t reach her obstetrician. Eventually she connected with a preventative care nurse through the state health plan who advised her to go to the hospital. There, she gave birth to their daughter, Josie, who weighed a pound and a half. She remained in the neonatal intensive care unit for the next 142 days.
Like the other candidates, Leatherman supports Medicaid expansion. He sees access to health care as at risk under Folwell.
“This office saved my kid’s life,” Leatherman says.