JOHN HOOD COLUMN: 5 candidates run to replace Folwell

RALEIGH — After eight years as state treasurer of North Carolina — and prior public-service roles as school-board member, assistant commerce secretary, and four-term state legislator — Dale Folwell is running for governor in 2024.

John Hood

I’ll discuss Folwell and other gubernatorial candidates in another column. Today, I’m focusing on the five candidates seeking to replace him as state treasurer, one of the 10 officials who comprise North Carolina’s Council of State.

You may find it puzzling that we elect so many executives. I’ve long argued we ought to shorten our ballot. But even I think we should still elect our state treasurer. It’s one of the most powerful public offices — supervising the state’s pension and health plans as well as local government finances — and should occupied by someone with not only a firm grasp of investment strategy and public finance but also the fortitude to withstand special-interest pressure.

Three Republicans and two Democrats are vying for their parties’ nominations.

First on the GOP ballot is A.J. Daoud, a former police officer who owns and operates funeral homes in western North Carolina. A longtime Republican activist, Daoud has served in multiple party offices and on the commission that supervises the state lottery, where he says he “was responsible for exposing wasteful spending returning millions back towards education.”

Rachel Johnson, a former banker, later ran RayLen Vineyards and Winery, a family business in Davie County. Her husband, Mark Johnson, is a former state superintendent of public instruction and school-board member.

Asked by Business North Carolina magazine how she’d manage the state pension fund, Johnson said she’d “continue Treasurer Folwell’s good work of protecting and improving the N.C. retirement system.” She added that “there’s always a temptation in this role to flex and try to make a risky play” and pledged to be “completely independent of previous ties to Wall Street and the elites of New York finance.”

This appears to be a dig at the third Republican in the race, Brad Briner, who recently stepped down from a leadership role in a Chapel Hill-based investment firm. Among his clients was former New York Mayor and business magnate Michael Bloomberg.

Briner, who currently serves on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the state treasurer’s Debt Affordability Advisory Committee, told Business North Carolina that Folwell’s investment approach has been too risk-averse, causing our pension fund to under-perform those of peer states such as Virginia. “I’m not advocating gambling,” he says. “I’m talking about taking smart, sensible steps to achieve the 6.5% to 7% annual returns that the system requires.”

Democrat Gabe Esparza, a former entrepreneur and American Express executive who served in the Biden administration as associate administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, also criticizes the pension fund’s performance under Folwell. But he praises the current state treasurer’s efforts to promote price transparency and competition in health care. In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Esparza said the state health plan should “first directly engage with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to negotiate long-term, stable pricing, while also investing in preventative care solutions that keep people healthy.”

His primary opponent is Wesley Harris, a three-term Democratic member of the North Carolina House who’s also worked in international tax accounting and taught economics at UNC-Charlotte. He argues the Local Government Commission under Folwell has become “too politicized” and that the treasurer has held too much pension funds in cash.

“For too long,” Harris says, “the Treasurer’s office has failed to look past tomorrow and adequately prepare our state for the challenges of the future. While doing so may yield results in the short-term, it leaves North Carolina’s funds vulnerable as our economy changes over time.”

Interestingly, the political arm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina has endorsed both Folwell for governor and Harris for state treasurer.

All these candidates have campaign websites where you can find more about their backgrounds, endorsements, and positions. Early voting for the March primary is now underway.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.