“Matt and I are laughing because we never get to go this deep,” said Ronnie Chatterji halfway through a forum for state treasurer candidates on Sunday.

“Being a nerd, it’s so fun to talk about being the state treasurer,” he continued. “We don’t get that much interest, so thank you.”

The forum was hosted by Indivisible Guilford County at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro.

Chatterji, a Duke University business professor and former senior economist in the Obama administration, and Matt Leatherman, who served as policy director under former state Treasurer Janet Cowell, fielded questions from three panelists. They included Cone Health lobbyist Ryan Blackledge, Guilford County Association of Educators President Todd Warren, and Gerry McCants, a local business leader and vocal advocate for inclusion of people of color in government contracting.

A third Democratic candidate, Dimple Ajmera, did not attend the forum. An at-large member of Charlotte City Council, Ajmera was represented at the forum by Antuan Marsh, who said some of his responses did not necessarily reflect the candidate’s views.

The winner of the Democratic primary on March 3 will go on to face Republican incumbent Dale Folwell in the November general election.

The question that elicited Chatterji’s laughter came from Blackledge, and it concerned investment strategy.

Chatterji responded by saying that he would shift more of the state’s $100 billion pension fund from savings to market investments.

Leatherman agreed. He added that he would like to share responsibility for stewardship of the pension.

“It is not appropriate for one individual to be the sole trustee of that amount of money,” he said. “We need a board of directors for this investment. My old boss put forward legislation at one time to accomplish that, but the Republican General Assembly opted not to act on it because they thought one day they might be able to have this authority for themselves. Well, now they do.”

“If you’re not talking about Medicaid expansion, you’re not serious about controlling the costs of healthcare.”

State treasurer candidate Ronnie Chatterji

The two candidates acknowledged they share a lot of the same values and policy goals, so they attempted throughout the forum to make their stories personal as a way of setting themselves apart from one another.

“You’re going to hear a lot of similar ideas and values here on the stage here today,” Leatherman said. “I’m going to try to differentiate myself as a person who has done the work before in this office.” He added that, while working under Cowell, he helped create “a fund for small and emerging managers.”

Chatterji fleshed the concept out, pledging to breathe new life into it.

“When you have $100 billion, you have 100 billion votes in the way capitalism works — and I intend to use it,” he said. “So, first is: Who are we going to invest our money with? Other states have emerging managers programs. Ours has been started and kind of stalled. Texas is a good example. It’s not just blue states or red states. We can model after programs like that to make sure we invest in minority and women fund managers.”

Leatherman gently reclaimed ownership of the initiative.

“The reason there’s a skeleton in place for putting more and more contracts with women- and minority-owned firms is because I helped Janet Cowell [set it up],” he said. “Small and Emerging Managers Fund II exists because of her leadership, with my help.”

State treasurer candidate Matt Leatherman speaks during a candidate forum on Sunday at College Park Baptist Church in Greensboro, as his opponent Ronnie Chatterji listens. (photo by Jordan Green)

Chatterji also told McCants that he would use the financial clout of the State Health Plan, which provides health coverage to teachers and civil servants, to pressure hospitals to do more contracting with firms owned by people of color.

“The biggest economic driver in most parts of rural North Carolina is the hospital,” Chatterji said. “The biggest employer west of Charlotte is Mission [Hospital in Asheville]. The biggest employer east of Raleigh is Vidant [Health]. So, how come the state treasurer — the largest payer — isn’t knocking on their door and saying, ‘Who has the cafeteria contract? Well, I’ve got a couple businesses I can recommend. Who’s got the uniforms contract? I’ve got a couple businesses I can recommend.’ We’ve got to use our economic power to get more people in the game, and that’s what I’ll do as state treasurer.”

The two candidates repeatedly argued for the need to expand Medicaid in North Carolina. Even though the authority rests with the General Assembly and governor, the two made the case that the treasurer needs to use the position as a megaphone.

“First place we start with healthcare in North Carolina: We need to expand Medicaid,” Chatterji said. “You can’t reform the State Health Plan until you have Medicaid expansion. Why? I’m the biggest billpayer for Cone Health. And we have people coming in because they don’t have insurance because they’re not covered by Medicaid, and Cone Health is going to have a hard time taking any changes we make to the State Health Plan.”

Later, Chatterji hit the point again.

“Day 1: Expand Medicaid needs to be the first thing any treasurer is talking about in North Carolina,” Chatterji said, as Leatherman vigorously nodded in agreement. “If you’re not talking about that, you’re not serious about healthcare.”

Leatherman enthusiastically concurred.

“I’m going to play those greatest hits,” he said. “Medicaid expansion is part of this. We have to do that.

“I totally agree,” he continued, as Chatterji gestured with two thumbs up. “If you’re not talking about Medicaid expansion, you’re not serious about controlling the costs of healthcare.”

Leatherman told the audience that his family currently receives health coverage through his wife, who is a teacher.

“We are on the State Health Plan paying these family rates,” he said. “We are a Medicaid family — right now. When a child is born with a birth weight as low as mine, you’re able to be waived into that program. I will be the only Council of State member able to talk about why Medicaid expansion is essential for the State Health Plan, as somebody currently on the program right now. The treasurer’s voice has to be the loudest for Medicaid expansion.”

Chatterji said he also has a personal stake in running for the office of treasurer.

He alluded to a rally in Greenville last summer when supporters chanted, “Send her back,” in response to a comment by President Trump about US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who was born in Somalia.

“They’re talking about people like me, my kids,” Chatterji said. “People like me need to stand up and run for office in this cycle, and show another narrative.”

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