Between Gov. Mike Easley's campaign-finance scandal and the birth of Sen. John Edwards's love child, the good ol' boy's club is on its way out in North Carolina, making way for female politicians like State Treasurer Janet Cowell.
Voters who are sick of a broken political process and tired of politicians in general like Cowell, our first female state treasurer, mostly because she doesn't seem like a politico. Instead, she is the quintessential financial wonk who got her start as a securities analyst on Wall Street after being educated at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
The daughter of a Methodist minister and public school teacher moved to Raleigh in 1997, where she began working as a business consultant. But she eventually heard the call to service in government, running first for City Council before moving on to serve two terms in the state senate. "To put your name on a ballot is a freak-out moment," Cowell said.
In 2008 Cowell opted to run for the council of state instead of the legislature, and got herself elected state treasurer. But she still isn't fully acclimated to campaign life.
"Modern politics is kind of a blur; there's so much time spent raising money, and not enough time out in the field," Cowell said. "For the most part you are locked in really crummy, dilapidated buildings, where these campaigns are headquartered. They look like they should be condemned."
Her first campaign — a spot on Raleigh's City Council — also taught her to compartmentalize her life. "You have to work out, and you have to have a distraction. The first time I ran for office I got overly emotionally involved."
Currently she is training for the GORUCK Challenge, an event in Chapel Hill where participants wake up at 1:00 am to carry a 30-pound backpack for 20 miles while doing push-ups and getting yelled at by pseudo drill instructors.
If that seems crazy, remember that she is the state treasurer running for re-election during a recession, the last job on earth a person should want, unless they like challenges.
"My first press conference was to announce a $17 billion loss, which is a fun way to start a new job," Cowell said, referring to losses to the state's pension plan which took effect around the time she took office in 2009.
North Carolina has managed to retain its Triple-A bond rating while other institutions throughout the country have been downgraded. "We're one of the top-funded pensions in the country and have a very conservative portfolio," Cowell said. "We avoided the mortgage backed securities losses that other people got engaged in."
That does not mean that the state's economy does not have its problems. "The challenge is that our unemployment rate has remained high compared to the national average," Cowell said, noting that our historical reliance on manufacturing made for a more volatile employment base.
With her sophisticated style and dense vocabulary, Cowell makes for an unlikely populist and would never admit to being one. But perhaps no person in the state is doing more to hold bankers accountable.
One of those instances has been her office's response to the "Libor-fixing" scandal. The London Interbank Offering Rate is an interest rate calculated using bank's suggestions and used for global transactions. A scandal developed recently when banks were purposefully inflating or deflating their rates to appear more creditworthy. "Everybody thought this was a mechanically set rate, like a stock market," Cowell said. "But it is a subjective group of bankers based out of the U.K., global bankers like HSBC and Bank of America, that set these rates. We're looking at whether there were transactions in North Carolina that were impacted by them posting this rate lower than it should have been."
Her office was in the news again recently when Facebook's initial public offering turned out to be a disaster, and the state's pension plan lost $4 million out of $26 million invested in the company. Not a ton in the grand scheme of things, but Cowell brought suit against the company. "The reason we decided to take that on was that a number of these new tech initial public offerings, like Facebook, have all created governance structures that are really bad."
It was more about principle than recovering those losses. "Our holding was not a large one, but the issue was the protection of small investors, having transparent markets, having shareholder rights, and that's been such a hallmark of American shareholder democracy and market capitalism," she said. "To have violated that out of the gate was a pretty huge and egregious corporate governance violation."
The race for state treasurer is one of the least talked about on the ballot, but also one of the more critical to the success of the state. "Fifteen percent of the state budget comes through our office and you wield broad authority that most people don't even realize," Cowell said. "We run a pension for 885,000 citizens, healthcare for 600,000, have all the bond authority, all the local government finance, and we actually can take over towns."
And she did. Cowell's office is currently managing the small town of Princeville until they get their financial house back in order.
Yet, with all that on her plate, Cowell is still arguing for reforming how North Carolina does business. "We have a tax code that is like Swiss cheese," she said. "That's a disadvantage to folks who don't have a fleet of lawyers to know that oyster-shell recycling happens to be tax deductible."
Her goal now is just to "get through this election, and then we'll talk later," she told me. If she keeps up at this pace, there will be plenty to talk about.
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