By Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner
Four years ago, the office of Wisconsin state treasurer was catapulted from relative obscurity to statewide attention.
In 2018, an Eau Claire investment manager named Sarah Godlewski led a statewide campaign that saved the office, defeating a constitutional amendment to do away with the elected position. Godlewski, a Democrat, parlayed that victory into a successful campaign to be the next state treasurer that November.
Once she was in the office, she raised its profile. The official duties of the independently elected treasurer have been steadily diminished by the Legislature over the last 20 years (one of the reasons lawmakers said they wanted to eliminate the office altogether).
The treasurer’s signature goes on state government checks. The treasurer also serves, along with the secretary of state and the attorney general, on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which manages a $1.3 billion trust fund and 77,000 acres of state-owned lands. The board distributes the fund’s earnings to public school libraries and lends money to public projects.
In her campaign, Godlewski sought to position the treasurer’s job as the state’s fiscal watchdog. She shaped the office into a bully pulpit on pocketbook policy. Godlewski chaired a task force on retirement security appointed by Gov. Tony Evers (a fellow Democrat) and established a task force on home ownership. She convened gatherings with local government treasurers.
Just this week she joined an event in Madison to rally support for the Democratic budget bill that was unveiled in Washington, D.C., a week ago to address climate change, prescription drug costs and taxes.
“Godlewski really revitalized the office, using it as a platform not only to do the kind of budget watchdog work typically associated with independent treasurers’ offices, but also to highlight economic security issues such as homeownership and student debt,” says Marquette University political scientist Phil Rocco.
Had Godlewski run for reelection, she would likely have had a strong hand. Instead, she entered the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. (Godlewski ended that campaign last week, endorsing Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, now the almost certain Democratic nominee to challenge Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.)
In the absence of a second-term bid by the incumbent, a collection of hopefuls have entered the race to succeed her. None of them are widely known to the general public, however, and the race itself has been eclipsed by other contests: for governor, the attorney general and for Johnson’s Senate seat.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have a primary election on Tuesday to choose candidates for the November 8 election.
On the Democratic side there are three contestants:Angelito Tenorio, of West Allis Aaron Richardson, of Fitchburg Gillian Battino, of Wausau
Two people are vying for the Republican nomination:John Leiber, of Cottage Grove Orlando Owens, of Milwaukee
All three of the Democratic hopefuls are making policy-forward pitches that couple the treasurer’s official duties with the role of advocate.
“Democrats running in this primary seem to be building on the template Godlewski laid down,” Rocco says. “You don’t necessarily see the same thing on the Republican side.”
Angelito Tenorio, the son of Philippine immigrants, is a West Allis alder and development manager for the nonprofit Wisconsin Conservation Voters. He was the first of the Democratic hopefuls to enter the race, announcing in July 2021.
Tenorio’s campaign emphasizes three roles: the treasurer as fiscal watchdog, including as an advocate for “responsible and disciplined spending” as well as for fiscal transparency; promoting economic and retirement security and financial literacy; and promoting socially responsible investments by the state.
Tenorio has amassed a long list of endorsements, including from Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, a number of other Democratic state lawmakers as well as local officials from across the state, along with state and local activist groups including Wisconsin Citizen Action and BLOC, Black Leaders Organizing Communities.
Aaron Richardson is the mayor of Fitchburg and a technology consultant working for the Oregon School District. He declared his candidacy in September 2021.
Richardson’s campaign proposes a home ownership program that would enable prospective buyers to rent a property, converting that to a purchase; modifying the state’s unclaimed property program for people to donate their unclaimed property to charity; and promoting financial literacy education. He also vows to promote environmentally responsible investment and to advocate for restrictions on payday lending.
Richardson has been endorsed by Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and Sheriff Kalvin Barrett, a number of other Dane County office holders as well as some other local officials from around the state.
Gillian Battino is a Wausau radiologist. Battino, a political newcomer who originally entered the Wisconsin Democratic Senate primary, switched in February to seek the state treasurer’s post.
Battino’s campaign website focuses almost exclusively on the office as advocate, proposing as treasurer to address health care access, prescription drug costs and education “in partnership with other public servants.” A list of priorities includes automatic retirement plan enrollment, promoting student loan debt forgiveness and repayment options and other broad goals. On Twitter, her campaign has also heavily stressed abortion rights.
The site does not offer specifics on how the treasurer’s office might address any of the issues it identifies.
Battino’s endorsements come from Emily’s List and other national groups promoting women candidates, along with Our Wisconsin Revolution and Secretary of State Doug La Follette
John Leiber is a Madison attorney living in Cottage Grove. A former Wisconsin Assembly staff member, he was an unsuccessful Assembly candidate in 2018.
Leiber describes himself as “a true fiscal conservative” and focuses solely on the management of assets that the office oversees as well as those of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands.
He vows to administer the office “without growing government and without using it as a stepping stone to another office.” His campaign website also promotes his candidacy as “an asset to the [Republican] party ticket in November.”
Leiber is a Racine native and has been endorsed by Rep. Robert Wittke and Sen. Van Wanggaard, both Racine-area Republicans, among others.
Orlando Owens, of Milwaukee, is the southeast regional director for Sen. Ron Johnson.
Owens’ campaign website offers the slogan of “God – Family – Country – Guns.” It describes his proposed focus in the treasurer’s office as workforce and economic development, including “expanding and exploring current and new markets” for dairy and manufacturing. It also identifies as his priorities opposition to “all mask and COVID-19 mandates,” stopping “Critical Race Theory,” election integrity, and support for school choice and small business.
Owens’ website does not list endorsements.
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