Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Un-Trumping North Carolina: Democrat Ronnie Chatterji, Running for State Treasurer

Ronnie Chatterji
ran in the March Democratic primary against two other strong Democrats. When I researched them all before voting, I was impressed by their individual credentials. It's a technical job, managing North Carolina's financial portfolio and its health-care system. They all looked qualified to me. And to a lot of other primary voters, too:

March 3rd primary vote totals:

Ronnie Chatterji 411,732 -- 35.81%
Dimple Ajmera 390,888 -- 33.99%
Matt Leatherman 347,226 -- 30.20%

I ended up voting for Dimple Ajmera -- primarily because of what I considered her stronger base in Mecklenburg County -- but I looked hard at Chatterji. I'm grateful now for the profile PamsPicks.net did on Chatterji last March (reproduced here without all the internal links):

Chatterji is a 42-year-old Gen-X-er who lives in Durham. He’s an economist and tenured professor in the Fuqua School of Business and Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama and he has offered economic advice to a number of other presidential and senatorial campaigns. He’s also an appointee of Governor Roy Cooper to the Entrepreneurial Council.

Chatterji has authored several op-ed pieces in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and writes widely for management and policy audiences with several recent pieces in Harvard Business Review and for the Brookings Institution. His new book, co-authored with Michael Lenox, is “Can Business Save the Earth?” (Stanford University Press).

If elected treasurer, Chatterji promises to “invest responsibly in companies that expand opportunities across our state. We can lead the fight to protect our environment and increase equity. We can expand access to financial services for all North Carolinians. We can make our healthcare system a model for the nation. The Treasurer can do so much for our state and I am ready to get to work.”

Highly qualified, and he has adorable kids: 

Incumbent Republican Treasurer Dale R. Folwell

Folwell is an old political hand from Forsyth County. He served several years on the Forsyth School Board before being elected to represent NC House Dist. 74 in 2004, and after the 2010 Tea Party takeover, he rose to be Number Two in the House as Speaker Pro Tempore under Speaker Thom Tillis. (House Dist. 74, incidentally, is the seat that Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse is running for now -- a ripe prospect for flipping.) Folwell tried to move up to lieutenant governor in the elections of 2012, but he finished third in the primary against the eventual winner, Dan Forest. In 2013 he was appointed by Gov. McCrory to head the state's Division of Employment Security. By 2016 he was running for state treasurer against Democrat Dan Blue III:

General Election of 2016:

Dale R. Folwell 2,373,022 -- 52.70%
Dan Blue III 2,129,762 -- 47.30%

In the House, Folwell was a standard-issue conservative in perfect step with the Tea Party takeover. In 2009, Civitas Action rated him the most conservative member of the House. He kissed the Koch ring by loyally attending American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meetings. He was a hawk for new hurdles on voting and helped get through anti-gay marriage and bathroom monitor bills that did so verrry much to improve North Carolina's economic standing in the free world -- then had the gall to run for treasurer.

He's been the most vocal opponent of one of Governor Cooper's executive orders, banning city-owned utility providers from disconnecting or fining non-paying customers during the COVID pandemic -- a humane provision, with so many out of work, to keep victimized workers from being thrown out on the street. But every good deed, it seems, has a worm in the bud: Some city-owned utilities could literally go bankrupt because of non-payment. That's the situation in Elizabeth City, incidentally, which was in desperate straits under the governor's order. Some 30% of its customers weren’t paying their utility bills. Without a waiver, the city would go broke in the fall, and its customers could end up paying a 10% to 46% hike in electric rates, according to Richard Olson, Elizabeth City's city manager (as told to the conservative Carolina Journal). 

Elizabeth City therefore applied to the state for a waiver to Gov. Cooper's order, and after waiting two weeks for any sort of reply, announced that they had no choice but to defy the governor and start charging again for in arrears utilities on July 1st. Immediately, the state got off the dime and granted the waiver. Folwell wants that waiver extended to all other such utilities, and he's demanding a face-to-face meeting of the Council of State today to debate the issue and force a vote. Unclear whether the Council of State can actually override the governor, but it can certainly cause trouble.

Both Folwell's and the governor's are rational positions, and both have merit. People shouldn't be thrown out of their homes during a state emergency which cost them their jobs. Cities shouldn't have to go bankrupt, either, which might actually lead to higher utility rates for all customers. It's a merciless dilemma, and I'm glad I don't have to make that decision.

I can agree with some issues Folwell has been strong on. His statement on hospital pricing transparency: "...I’m calling on all North Carolina hospitals to be transparent and to publish their pricing so consumers can make informed decisions regarding health care. I’m also calling for the United States Department of Justice and the North Carolina Department of Justice, on behalf of the State Health Plan, to recover the potentially hundreds of millions overcharged to consumers by hospital management from this illegal activity.”

Pricing transparency is perhaps another brick in Folwell's wall against spending on social programs, especially on healthcare, especially for some 720,000 state employees, both retired and active now. In January of 2019, and as administrator of the state's Health Care Plan, Folwell proposed cutting spending some $300 million on health care for state workers, a move which Partners for Innovation in Health Care claimed would "ration care and access, jeopardize the quality of care, cripple local operations and services in every single healthcare system across the state and cause employee layoffs." For his part, Folwell pointed to the hidden and even deceptive prices charged by hospitals, usually in concert with insurance companies.

Late last March, just as COVID-19 was getting a foothold in North Carolina, Folwell was diagnosed with a serious case of the virus and spent five days in hospital recovering. Despite that experience, Folwell has been one of the more vocal members of the Council of State -- along with Lt. Gov. Dan Forest -- to push back against the governor's various shutdown orders.

He's definitely a mixed bag sort of treasurer. While I can appreciate his thinking on some issues, I'm holding his days in the NC House against him.

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