The Fight to be City Treasurer: Why You Should Care

The remaining candidates for city treasurer have bold plans for reform, making the close election worthy of your attention.

By Alex Bisnath

On April 2nd, 10th District State Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin will face off against 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar (S.M. ’09, A.M. ’16) in a runoff election for Chicago treasurer. Both candidates received over 40% of the vote in the initial February 26 election, so it’s bound to be a close race. Here’s why you should care.

For those unfamiliar with the responsibilities of the job, the treasurer primarily manages the City’s investment portfolio, which is worth almost $8 billion. Most of the City’s funds are invested in bonds and securities, the returns from which are used to fund City projects. The treasurer also oversees the City’s escrow and operating funds accounts, in addition to handling investments for the City’s pension funds, such as the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund.

Although the treasurer is an elected official, this is the first time there’s been real competition for the position since 1999. As such, this is a crucial time for the role to receive citywide attention; in recent years, Chicago’s financial situation—along with that of Illinois as a whole—has been dire. In 2017, the City’s debt reached $20.2 billion, up almost $8 billion from 2000. Even more frightening is that the City currently owes over $220 billion in pension debt liabilities, leaving each Chicagoan with more than $75,000 in public debt. Public officials have been responding to the debt crisis by slashing budgets and laying off hundreds of employees. Alarmingly, Chicago Public Schools has been borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to pay off immediate expenses—a strategy eerily similar to what almost brought New York City to bankruptcy in the 1970s.

Although the treasurer can’t fix these problems singlehandedly, the office has the power to significantly impact economic stability citywide, which would lighten the financial burdens facing Chicago taxpayers and ensure that City workers receive their hard-earned pensions. Both candidates in this year’s race have bold plans, challenging the common notions of what the treasurer can and can’t do. Conyears-Ervin plans on moving the City Council Office of Financial Analysis under the treasurer’s control, allowing her to act as an “independent watchdog of taxpayer dollars” and ensure City finances are managed responsibly. She plans to make government more transparent by auditing City departments and by working more closely with the mayor and city council. These measures could make meaningful progress in beating back the corruption that has infamously plagued the city throughout its history, ensuring that public money is used to help taxpayers as effectively as possible.

Pawar has his own ideas about how to help taxpayers. Most notably, the alderman plans on establishing a public bank that would use public funds to support marginalized communities. This is a bold idea; the only public bank currently operating in the U.S. is the Bank of North Dakota, originally founded over one hundred years ago to help shield farmers from predatory lending practices. In addition to the lack of precedent for public banking, Pawar’s opponents have also cited the potentially high cost of the project as a source of concern. But there is just as much reason for optimism as worry; if all goes according to Pawar’s plan, the bank would be able to refinance student loans at 5 percent interest. This would motivate college students to stay in the city, while providing them with more spare cash to put back into the economy. The bank would also finance affordable housing, offer loans to local businesses, and fund infrastructure projects.

This type of optimism is nothing out of the ordinary for Pawar. He’s said he would make it a priority to develop Chicago’s version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal—which would move the city towards more carbon-neutral, environmentally friendly investments—promising to release a report on a Green New Deal for Chicago in his first 100 days in office. Pawar’s commitment to such bold action makes him worth backing in this election because it suggests an underlying vision of what the office of city treasurer could be: an engine for change within the city of Chicago instead of just an indistinguishable part of the larger bureaucracy.

With such ambitious candidates, the position of city treasurer will likely undergo historic change right in front of our eyes—regardless of who gets elected. So, if you’re not already fed up with election coverage, this race is one that you should definitely keep your eyes on.

Alex Bisnath is a first-year in the College.