“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

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

Later, Chatterji hit the point

“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

“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

“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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