NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- The race for state treasurer, bolstered by political action committees and with no elected incumbent, is shaping up to be perhaps the best statewide contest.
Down-ticket races for treasurer rarely get much attention from the media or public. But outside money and a spirited GOP campaign are driving interest as Election Day nears.
Incumbent Democrat Treasurer Beth Pearce was appointed to the post when former Treasurer Jeb Spaulding joined the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin following the 2010 election. A longtime assistant treasurer under Spaulding, Pearce is now running for the post for the first time.
Republican Wendy Wilton, meanwhile, is mounting a spirited challenge. In recent weeks she has been assisted by a political action committee called Vermonters First, which has ponied up over $100,000 on robocalls, mailings and television ads.
"It's a game-changer," Wilton said of the outside expenditures.
Last week, a liberal so-called super pac, Priorities PAC, launched a $15,000 ad buy in support of Pearce.
The two candidates have a different take on the involvement of super pacs.
"I think, actually, that I'm fortunate that there has been a group that has been interested in supporting my candidacy. I certainly think it speaks volumes about what they think my chances are," Wilton said.
Pearce, meanwhile, said she opposed the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the door to outside expenditures, and would prefer they stay out of Vermont elections.
"I would prefer that we go back to the old way of doing business without super pacs," she said. "I'm concerned about transparency. I think that that's a very important issue, that voters should know who provided the contributions. From my end, that's the biggest issue."
Wilton, currently the treasurer in Rutland, has focused her campaign on several key themes --transparency, accountability and restoring independence to the office.
"I felt like I had a message to start with and I've stuck to it," she said. "People really like those themes. They're not political."
Wilton said she is pointing out to voters that the state has clear fiscal challenges, including pension funds for state employees and teachers that are only 79 percent and 65 percent funded, respectively, toward future obligations.
"She seems to have this attitude that everything is OK. You know, we've got a good bond rating, so everything is hunky dory," Wilton said. "How can we say everything is OK? We have a pension fund that's 65 percent funded."
"That just doesn't pass the straight-face test," she added.
Pearce is touting the state's excellent bond rating, Wilton charged, but ignoring other fiscal realities that must be addressed. "We've got a great bond rating. That's good. I would work like a dog to keep it," Wilton said. "There's a whole host of other issues that are going to be much more significant."
Pearce said the bond rating is very important, and the credit rating agencies have considered the state's pension funds when granting near-perfect ratings.
"From my end, the biggest accomplishment that we've had is seeing ours move back to triple A status. We had it in the ‘70s and lost it. The biggest challenge going forward is to continue to maintain it," Pearce said. "That's something I've very proud of because it impacts everybody in the state."
Pearce said the pension plans could be better funded. But, emerging from the "Great Recession" they are in good shape. Working with lawmakers, the treasurer's office has made several changes in the last seven years to ensure the funds' stability.
"It is being addressed. I've been addressing this as deputy treasurer and state treasurer since 2005, she said. "We've got a plan in place and the rating agencies recognize that we have spent time working on our pension plans. They see that we've made structural changes. We pushed out retirement a little further out. In both the teachers' and state plan people are paying a little more, the employees."
Wilton has questioned Pearce's ability to maintain independence within the treasurer's office because she was first appointed by Spaulding as a deputy, and then to the top post by Shumlin. Pearce rejected any element of politics in her work, however.
"I worked pretty well with (former Republican) Gov. (James) Douglas, too. A lot of the changes we made were during that period," she said. "What I think the treasurer's office is very good at is nonpartisanship."
The office requires "professionalism and working together," according to Pearce. The two candidates have different approaches, she said. "I think I take a more professional approach."
"The biggest danger and the biggest fear that I have is partisanship. When we start getting into the treasurer's office being a soap box for ideological discussions as opposed to an objective fiscal manager of our investments, or our assets and cash management, then you've got a problem," Pearce said.
Wilton distracted from her fiscal themes earlier this month when her campaign accused Pearce of lacking commitment to the state because Pearce rents rather than owns a home. A press release from the Wilton campaign accused Pearce of ducking the state's property tax by renting.
Wilton said that exchange is over, and she is again focusing on fiscal issues. "You would think the media would be tired of this already. Why aren't they?" she said. "It is unusual, you have to admit that, but at this point I am really focused on the issues of this campaign. Let's talk about those. Do Vermonters really care if she owns a house?"
Pearce said such "personal attacks" have no place in the race. Vermonters are diverse and make a variety of choice, including whether to rent or own a home. Saying that renting a home is shows less of a commitment to the state, or suggesting that it is disqualifying, would disenfranchise many residents, she said.
Both candidates are optimistic and expect to win. For Wilton, the super pac involvement indicates a tight race.
"I don't have any polling, but I can just tell you that I feel like it's a dead heat," she said. "All of the attention on this race and the two super pacs and the money they are spending, I think it's dead heat."
Pearce said she believes voters are connecting with her professionalism and record.
"I've been doing this work for 35 years. I was a deputy treasurer in another state. Did all types of local and state financial jobs. So, this is my profession. This is what I love doing. I'll tell you right up front that this is the only elected office I will ever be seeking. This is what I do for a living and this isn't about a stepping stone for something else," Pearce said.