Treasurer hopefuls campaign in shadows

At the start of his term, state Treasurer Clint Zweifel read the newspaper with trepidation, concerned about the next challenge from the economic downturn in protecting the state’s money.

Now Zweifel is trying to become Missouri’s first two-term state treasurer in more than a decade and points to successes in stabilizing the state’s investment portfolio and bolstering economic development efforts.

“The state treasurer should be somebody that’s focused on nuts and bolts. It should be somebody that understands how to get from point A to point B successfully,” Zweifel said. “It should be somebody that has demonstrated a record of performance.”

Republican challenger Cole McNary suggests the state treasurer should be more active. He wants to aggressively monitor Missouri’s pension obligations, push efforts to shrink the size of state government and assist lawmakers with long-term budgeting and planning.

“These are things that, heretofore, the treasurer has not done but should,” said McNary, a Republican state lawmaker from Chesterfield.

Treasurers are limited to two, four-year terms by the Missouri Constitution. The office invests state funds, holds Missourians’ unclaimed property and administers a college savings plan and a program that helps businesses get low-interest loans. The treasurer also serves on governing boards for the Missouri Housing Development Commission and the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System.

Running a statewide campaign continues a family tradition for the 48-year-old McNary, who started in Missouri government after winning a state House seat in 2008 but whose experience began well before then. He jokes about being a prop in the campaigns of his father Gene McNary, who served as St. Louis County executive and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, governor and Congress. Cole McNary met his wife while working on his father’s campaign in 1984, and this year regularly is asked about his father by voters.

Soft-spoken, McNary has given relatively few speeches on the state House floor in Jefferson City and instead frequently speaks one-on-one with other lawmakers. Shaking hands and campaigning at a fellow legislator’s barbecue this month, one Republican supporter returned and suggested that McNary wear a nametag or sticker to help voters remember him.

Zweifel, 38, was part of the Democrats’ near-complete sweep of Missouri’s statewide offices in 2008. He served three terms in the state House and was the first person in his family to attend college. While attending the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Zweifel decided to run for student body vice president and met his wife while campaigning.

Neither treasurer candidate was challenged in his party primary, nor have they gotten significant attention this fall in a race overshadowed by the year’s higher-profile contests for Senate and governor.

McNary has sought to draw a broader political context into the race, calling himself a conservative and pointing to his recent chairmanship of a House committee that dealt with legislation to repeal old and obsolete laws and state commissions. He said he believes government is out of control and needs to be curbed and calls Zweifel a liberal.

In addition, McNary has focused on pensions, pointing out that financial experts warn obligations to retirees are an impending problem for states across the country. He said it is unrealistic to presume Missouri will be immune and has called for more transparency and a thorough analysis.

“We need to have enough transparency so that we have good minds looking at this to find out is there a problem,” McNary said. “If there is no problem, we are no worse off for looking, but if there is a problem, we need to be able to work together, put together a plan and fix the problem. But we cannot fix the problem if we’re not even going to look.”

Zweifel defends his work on pensions. He said the week he took office he learned and then publicly disclosed the state retirement system had invested in a Bernie Madoff feeder fund. He said McNary’s committee work had little economic or budgetary effect and that many pension policies are governed by Missouri law, which gives a state legislator opportunities to make changes.

“What we need is people who actually have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish,” Zweifel said.

As treasurer, Zweifel said he has improved the performance of Missouri’s college savings plan and persuaded the state housing commission to support an initiative dedicating 30 percent of its resources to helping military veterans returning from overseas, those aging out of the foster care system and the mentally ill.

In 2009, Zweifel got the Republican-led Legislature to remove the cap on interest state government can earn for its deposits and broaden the low-interest business loan program. He also has worked to improve how unclaimed property is handled by processing claims faster and permitting them to be made online.

Libertarian Sean O’Toole, of Kansas City, also is running in the treasurer’s race.

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