The most competitive political contest in Vermont this year is for a position that normally attracts little attention.
The race for state treasurer has drawn charged political attacks and an unprecedented level of spending.
The stakes in this election are high. Democrats want to hold on to the seat, and Republicans want to place a high-profile critic inside state government.
Treasurer Beth Pearce got the job when Gov. Peter Shumlin picked then-Treasurer Jeb Spaulding as administration secretary. Pearce was Spaulding’s deputy and had never run for statewide office.
A self-described numbers person, Pearce says her proudest accomplishment is Vermont’s recent upgrade to a triple-A bond rating. Yet her technocratic tendencies – or perhaps her political inexperience – show when she’s asked to explain why the average voter should care about the state’s bond rating. A minute into the answer, Pearce concedes she gets "into the weeds a little." But she says a favorable rating lowers the cost of borrowing and can save taxpayers’ money.
"Yes, it’s a tough subject to get across," Pearce says. "But it’s an important piece of what we do in this state, and I think the voters are going to respect that."
Pearce faces a strong challenge from Republican Wendy Wilton, a former state senator and the current Rutland city treasurer. Wilton has been helped by a new political action committee, Vermonters First, that has spent more than $100,000 on TV ads and mailings boosting her candidacy.
Wilton implies that Pearce might be too close to Gov. Shumlin and the Democratically controlled legislature.
"Do we want someone who is transparent and can give people real-time information about our performance, which she does not do but I do in Rutland every day?" Wilton asks. "Do we want a fiscal leader who can be independent of the legislature and the administration and tell Vermonters the truth?"
No credible polls have been conducted. But Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, says his sense is that the treasurer’s contest is too close to call.
Davis says the race is getting a lot of attention because if Wilton wins she becomes the de facto leader of the opposition party.
"If Wendy Wilton were elected treasurer she’d be holding press conferences with some regularity, especially during the legislative session, to raise issues that she thinks involves financial matters that may over the long term threaten the stability of the state’s public finances," Davis says.
The treasurer’s race is often fairly non-partisan. But Davis says Republicans and some independents may turn out for Wilton in part because they want to balance Democrats in Montpelier.
"Some voters may think, ‘Well, Randy Brock’s chances of defeating Peter Shumlin aren’t very good right now. But if we want to have a check on the Shumlin Administration, perhaps a way of doing it is by electing Wendy Wilton treasurer,’ " Davis says.
Over the past few weeks, Wilton has charged Pearce has shown poor management by allowing high levels of overtime among her staff.
Pearce responds that the overall budget for her office has actually gone down. She says the overtime was needed because of staff departures and the installation of a new information technology system.
Pearce has also begun to lob back at Wilton. This week, the treasurer charged that Wilton has shifted her position on health care reform, and that Rutland was placed on a watch list by the state’s municipal bond bank.