2008-09-24 / Police Reports

Penna. Treasurer's Race Pits Lawyer Vs. Finance Pro

By Marc Levy ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A bond lawyer and a venture capitalist are competing for the open seat of state treasurer - and with it the power to manage billions of taxpayer dollars - in the Nov. 4 election.

Both Republican Tom Ellis and Democrat Rob McCord would be first-timers in Harrisburg, having never served in office at the state level. Both are Ivy League products who are 49 years old and live a mere 10 miles from each other in Montgomery County.

Neither is a stranger to the political world - Ellis is a former Montgomery County commissioner and McCord worked as an aide in Congress. And while the treasurer's office can be a steppingstone to higher political office, both men say they share a passion for public finance.

For now, Ellis and McCord are spending much of their campaign time showing up at party events and piggybacking on appearances by candidates for other offices, trying to stir interest in a race for an office stuck with a low profile and no hotbutton issues.

Neither has run television advertisements and the candidates have not agreed to a debate schedule.

The man who wins will oversee a department with a budget of $60 million and more than 500 employees responsible for managing the state's cash and cutting checks. The salary is $141,000.

Incumbent Treasurer Robin Wiessmann agreed not to seek election to a full four-year term when Gov. Ed Rendell appointed her in April 2007 to finish the term of Bob Casey, who won a U.S. Senate seat in 2006.

McCord spent more than $3 million and saturated the airwaves to win a three-way Democratic primary, his first election ever. Ellis captured the state GOP endorsement in February and sailed through an uncontested primary.

McCord's ability to raise millions - he also drew at least $1 million from his own wallet - brought a challenge from Ellis to bar professional money managers from getting a contract to invest state dollars if they donated to the winning candidate in the treasurer's race.

"It gives confidence back to our residents that money is being invested for the right reasons and not because somebody gave a large political contribution,'' Ellis said.

McCord, who has raised hundreds of thousands from financial professionals, responded that Ellis could just as easily award a contract to a money manager as a favor to a major donor.

Rather than play a "gotcha game,'' he said, he would set up an advisory board that would clearly document who is managing the state's money and why they qualified for the job.

"We'll make sure we're earning the public trust by showing how we vet things and how we avoid bias,'' McCord said.

McCord worked in Washington, D.C., for a decade, where he got exposure to the technology sector, first as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Norman Mineta, who represented California's Silicon Valley in Congress, and later as the CEO of the nonprofit Congressional Institute for the Future. He went to work for Safeguard Scientifics Inc., learning the craft of venture capitalism before helping start four private enterprises that fed capital to technology and biotech firms.

Among his investors were pension funds and the state of Pennsylvania. He found success, he said, in helping tech startups get loans, and has compiled a rolodex of wealthy investors and money managers.

McCord said he believes the state can do more with its money - for instance, getting better returns while doing economic good by investing in, say, innovative energy conservation projects that cut electricity use in apartment buildings for lower middle lass residents.

"I will be a sleeves-up manager of assets,'' he said.

Ellis has worked in public finance for the same law firm - the politically connected Philadelphia firm, Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP, that also employed Rendell - since he graduated from law school in 1985.

Much of his time has been spent helping towns, school districts, counties and universities borrow money in the bond markets. He helped set up a pension bond program for municipalities needing to meet retiree obligations, and he helped introduce a one-stop shop for colleges and universities that wanted to borrow money, but didn't know how.

In politics, he served 12 years as a Cheltenham Township commissioner and four as a Montgomery County commissioner, including two as chairman.

He touts a record of cutting taxes, in part by refinancing the county's debt to save money, and setting up task forces to study greenhouse gas reduction and campaign finance reform. As treasurer, he said he believes he can make college more affordable by getting state schools to offer discounted tuition to parents who are paying out of their investments in the state's 529 college savings program.

"We have to do everything we can to make college more affordable and the state treasurer can have a role in that,'' he said.

Also running is Libertarian candidate, Berlie Etzel, a retired college mathematics and science professor and elected constable from Clarion County.

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