Dan Bohrod has his work cut out for him. For starters, he's running against a Democratic incumbent in the Sept. 14 primary for a position, state treasurer, that most people know nothing about. The media haven't helped matters by paying almost no attention to the race.
To top it off, Democratic gubernatorial contender Tom Barrett has called for eliminating the state treasurer job to help balance the budget. Even one of the job's candidates, Kurt Schuller, a Republican running with Tea Party support, says if elected he'll work toward eliminating the position.
But Bohrod, 52, is a believer: both in the power of democracy and the importance of the state treasurer. "It's a voice of the people," he says. "Just because it hasn't been an especially loud or effective voice doesn't mean we should eliminate it."
Bohrod's primary opponent, incumbent Dawn Marie Sass, 51, also trumpets the position. She criticized her predecessor for giving up some of the office's powers, especially the function of cash management, which involves reviewing the state's receipts and expenditures.
"The treasurer's office has been low-key and under the radar," she says. "But we're still a watchdog."
Bohrod echoes these sentiments, saying the office has "been under the radar for decades" and promising to ramp up the office's watchdog role.
The state treasurer has three main responsibilities. He or she manages the local government investment pool, trying to get the best returns. The office also oversees the Wisconsin College Savings Program, which lets parents open tax-free savings accounts for their children's higher education. And it maintains custody and records for unclaimed property: things like estates, life insurance policies, stocks and neglected safe deposit boxes.
Sass heralds her performance in this last function. She returned $24.7 million in unclaimed property in her first year in office, more than her Republican predecessor, Jack Voight, returned in seven years. "I didn't think my predecessor was doing enough," she says.
Bohrod, who works in Madison's comptroller office, thinks the same about Sass. Bohrod says he'd weigh in on state fiscal matters, with an eye toward cutting costs. He says the treasurer's office "might be a puppy pulpit, not a bully pulpit," but "I'll at least raise issues that aren't being raised."
For instance, Bohrod has proposed eliminating the executive assistant position in all state departments, which he says would save millions.
"The lieutenant governor's budget is approaching $1 million," he says. "Why does the lieutenant governor, whose sole purpose is basically to wait until the governor becomes incapacitated, need a chief of staff and a policy director?"
Sass agrees the office needs to be vigilant. "Every two years they try to raid the unpaid property fund to pay down the budget," she says. "I wholeheartedly tell them this is not our money." She adds, "I have to do what the governor and the Legislature tell me, but I can make a stink about it."
While raising the profile of the office, Sass has been accused of nepotism and misuse of public money. She drew heat last year for hiring her niece to work in her office. She says the position was only four weeks long and approved by the Office of State Employee Relations, to deal with a backlog of property claims.
"[My niece] processed 2,500 claims. It wasn't like she was sitting there doing her nails," she says. "I did it for the good of my office."
But Bohrod says it showed poor judgment and damaged the office's credibility. "It doesn't look good," he says. "And if you're a public official, if it doesn't look good, it isn't good."
He also faults Sass, as have others, for using state funds to attend a national conference of state treasurers in Dana Point, Calif. But Sass says she spoke at the conference, and the association reimbursed the state $2,182 for her trip.
Both Bohrod and Sass agree that eliminating the position of treasurer - which would require a state constitutional amendment - won't save any money. The office pays for itself through investment income and program revenue, and its duties would have to shift to other state departments.
On the GOP side
Three candidates are running for treasurer in the Republican primary.
Kurt Schuller, 55, of Eden, a restaurant manager for Old Country Buffet.