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Duke professor runs for NC treasurer, the ‘most important position no one’s ever heard of’

<p>Ronnie Chatterji, professor in the Fuqua School of Business</p>

Ronnie Chatterji, professor in the Fuqua School of Business

A Fuqua professor is running for North Carolina state treasurer and seeks to take a long-term, analytical approach to how the state manages its $95 billion pension.

Aaron “Ronnie” Chatterji, professor at the Fuqua School of Business and Sanford School of Public Policy, decided to run for the position as part of the Democratic Party in April. Chatterji worked on the 2008 Obama campaign and served as a senior economist in the White House Council of Economic Advisers under the Obama Administration.

The treasurer, he said, is an “unusually powerful position” because they are the sole fiduciary of a $95 billion pension fund for all state employees. The office manages the pension through choosing how to invest it, and also runs the state health plan and assists local governments with fiscal matters.

“It’s basically the most important position that no one’s ever heard of,” he said.

Managing money, advocating for families

Chatterji said that as treasurer, he would improve the management of the pension by taking a “longer-term view” on investments in the state’s retirement system. Climate change, he emphasized, is the key issue. Currently, there is not enough consideration of how issues around climate change will impact health reform and investments.

“I think we should take that as a challenge right now to make sure that we don't have assets that are stranded and we don't use a lot of money on investments gone bad because we're not taking the challenge to change them to the climate,” Chatterji said.

Chatterji is especially passionate about this issue after co-authoring the book, “Can Business Save the Earth?” in 2018. In it, he concluded that to solve key climate issues, we need people who own companies and capital to contribute to the effort. With $95 billion, Chatterji said he can make a difference in how we perceive and act on climate change.

He added that within pension management, there needs to be a professional and diverse staff in place with the expertise to support the treasurer. There is not much diversity in the financial management industry, Chatterji said, and if elected, he would work on fixing this problem.

Additionally, the treasurer manages the health plan for all state employees, which covers 720,000 people and takes up over $3 billion of the state budget per year. Chatterji seeks to ensure that the healthcare program is adequately funded and that the state is adequately reimbursing hospitals for not just services delivered, but also quality of care. They also approve and issue all local and state bonds, which are used to build infrastructure like schools and rural broadband.

Recently endorsed by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, Chatterji emphasized that the treasurer not only manages budgets, but also has considerable “soft power” in advocating for individuals and families. With his attention and expertise, he believes he will be an effective advocate for families.

“Behind all these numbers and behind all these economic issues, are families,” he said. “So [even if] I can’t necessarily change what the unemployment insurance regime looks like, I can at least be a voice at the table, who’s an economist who will fight for people.”

Inspired to run

Chatterji said that he was inspired to run after seeing the importance of elections and his potential to respond to big, looming challenges like climate change. His experiences in the White House and witnessing the 2010 redistricting of North Carolina played a role in his decision to campaign.

“If I could get involved in the system, win an election and matter, then I should try,” he said.

As a Duke professor, Chatterji constantly thinks about the University’s mantra, “knowledge in the service of society.” He said that he sees the N.C. treasurer position as a “logical extension” of what he’s doing as a professor: taking the knowledge he has generated to scaling his impact on society.  

“To me, if we have this knowledge and we have things that can improve the world, then it's incumbent on us to get out there and do it,” Chatterji said.

Brought up by parents who worked for the State also encouraged Chatterji to go into public service. He said that his mom being a teacher and his dad being a public employee allowed them “to live the American Dream,” which is increasingly slipping away from people today. 

“It’s up to people like me to step up and help more people live that dream,” he said.

The biggest challenge of the election, Chatterji noted, is not the campaigning, the travel nor the time, but “trying to get people to care.” He said that these smaller positions don’t attract people the way federal races do, although he argued that states and localities are more impactful on the lives of everyday people.

“My theory is that if you don’t make these jobs matter, then the right people aren’t going to run for them and you’re not going to get good public servants,” he said. “So my message to people is you got to invest in your state and local races, you got to vote in your state and local races. And this is especially true for younger people.”

‘Committed public servant’

Daniel Vermeer, associate professor of the practice of energy, who has worked with Chatterji for 11 years, noted that he thinks it’s uncommon to have someone like Chatterji who is both a “top-tier academic” and “committed public servant.” He said Chatterji brings a unique perspective based on both his role on the Council of Economic Advisers and his academic work as an economist. 

“He blends theory and practice in a really powerful way,” Vermeer said.

Senior Teig Hennessy heard Chatterji speak at an event organized by the Duke Democrats. He wrote in a message to The Chronicle that Chatterji is “really looking at the systemic ways in which Republicans have been able to control so much of the government, and he’s pushing [Democrats] to run for smaller offices like the treasurer role.”

‘Got what it takes’

Although he will have to take leave from Duke if he wins the election, Chatterji affirms that he will “always be a teacher at heart.” He said he would look for opportunities to provide knowledge even as treasurer, whether that be discussing financial literacy or bringing together partnerships between universities, communities and businesses.

If elected, Chatterji said he will be the first Asian American in the state’s history to hold a statewide office in North Carolina. He noted that there has been only one other non-white person elected to statewide office, other than judges.

Although he thinks this is a great opportunity, Chatterji said that it’s not one that he really thinks about in terms of his background. 

“It’s more that I think about I can do the job well, and I also have this background that's going to help me understand that people can come from different walks of life, have different backgrounds and be effective,” Chatterji reflected.

Vermeer is proud to have a colleague who “has got what it takes” to help North Carolina move forward. He believes Chatterji has the right kind of temperament to bring people together and build bridges across divides. 

“We need as many people like him as possible in public office,” Vermeer said.

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