Treasurer race breaks down along ideological lines

Treasurer race breaks down along ideological lines
Ted Wheeler and Chris Telfer

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Ted Wheeler's television ad closes with him seated behind a gray desk, scribbling on a piece of paper and looking, well, diligent. His chief opponent, Chris Telfer, has a similar online ad — nondescript desk, degrees on the wall, neutral-colored business suit.

No cowboy hats, no cheering crowds, no testimonials from wide-eyed supporters. The race for Oregon treasurer is perhaps the state's quietest campaign for one of its least-sexy elected positions. | More Campaign 2010 News

But the power of the treasurer, which grew exponentially in the 1960s when former Gov. Robert Straub began investing public pension money in the stock market, highlights Oregon's budget problems and two different paths toward its financial future.

Wheeler, a Democrat appointed to the position after the death of his predecessor in March, said he "has the bigger picture in mind" and can unite disparate interests like labor groups and the business community. He said he's willing to go after corporate "bad actors" and feels the state treasurer is more than an accountant.

"People here are struggling, suffering," Wheeler said. "The treasurer needs to speak to those issues."

Telfer said Wheeler has been nothing more than a bookkeeper in his seven months in office. He said the state needs a treasurer who serves as chief financial officer.

Telfer, a Republican, said she wants the position to direct investment and take a more active role in the state's financial future.

"The position has never been more than a figurehead," Telfer said. "I find bookkeeping pretty boring."

In many ways, the race breaks down along traditional ideological lines. Wheeler is in favor of major Democratic proposals this year, including the Democratic candidate for governor's pitch to create jobs by weatherizing Oregon schools and paying for it with the energy savings.

"That is a proven model at this point," Wheeler said. "I think it makes good sense from a taxpayers' perspective."

Telfer said the state needs to stop automatically funding agencies and services, and would ask each agency to justify its expenses. The idea is also supported by Oregon's Republican candidate for governor.

Wheeler said he agrees with the concept, but would rather prioritize the state budget by program, rather than by agency.

Oregon's treasurer manages state debt, issues bonds, manages its $65 billion in investment funds and serves as a bank for state agencies. The race this year is to fill the remaining two-year term of former treasurer Ben Westlund, who won the seat in 2008 and died in March.

An investigation by the Oregonian newspaper this year found that treasury officers stayed at resorts, flew first class and ate on the dime of the investment firms they were charged with overseeing.

Upon taking office, Wheeler reviewed the agency's travel policies and required investment officers to fly coach class on domestic trips. Wheeler also banned participation in hosted golf or other off-site entertainment unless the cost is paid by the officers out of their own salaries.

Wheeler made news in late September when he called for a halt to borrowing on the state's general fund because of fears it could lower the state's bond rating, making borrowing more expensive. Telfer said his edict came too late.

Mark Henkels, a Western Oregon University political science professor, said Wheeler represents the more traditional treasurer candidate, while Telfer represents a change to the belief that business has the answers to problems government can't handle.

"It's really hard to be truly revolutionary as a treasurer," Henkels said, adding that he doubts voters will turn to business as a solution to budget problems so soon after the Wall Street crash and subsequent bailout.

Henkels said that the treasurer's low profile means party identification, more than the merits of an individual candidate, will likely drive the election.

"That election is going to be a test of whether is Oregon still thoroughly Democratic," Henkels said. "Oregon's one place where Democrats can still win because they have a 'D' behind their name."

Democrats maintain a voter-registration edge of more than 200,000 in Oregon.

Wheeler won the Democratic nomination with 65 percent of the vote. The former Multnomah County chairman has seen his star rise quickly, particularly after his appointment by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to his current position.

Telfer, a Bend accountant, is in her first term as a state senator and ran unopposed in the Republican primary for treasurer. During the past two legislative sessions, she led efforts to develop an alternative state budget, with $250 million targeted for schools.

The race has also flown under the radar financially. Telfer has raised just $108,000, mainly from timber interests and the state GOP. The timber money stems from the fact that the state treasurer is one of three people — along with the governor and secretary of state — who sits on the State Land Board, which leases state land to public and private interests for business activities.

Wheeler holds a significant fundraising advantage, with $400,000 in campaign contributions.

 

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.