With current state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski vacating her office and mounting a bid in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike fielded a pool of candidates with limited experience seeking the statewide office in November.
The pair of Republicans competing for their party's nomination stand in stark contrast to one another in their visions about the role and scope of the treasury. Three Democrats, meanwhile, are each tapping into the progressive label and seeking to excite voters in what is expected to be a hostile election year for Democrats.
The stakes of the race for treasurer are potentially lower this cycle than in years past given the limited scope of the office's institutional power compared to treasurers in other states. However, competing policy visions and rhetorical differences have highlighted ideological rifts between candidates that may lead to party infighting heading into general election season.
What are the duties of the treasurer?
In Wisconsin, the state treasurer is responsible for signing checks, bonds, deeds and other draft documents dispersed by the state government and overseeing public spending. The treasurer serves as a member of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, which manages 80,000 acres and a $1.3 billion trust fund and dispenses budget-allocated funding to public schools.
Treasurers are also tasked with promoting Wisconsin's unclaimed property program — an initiative based on a state law that requires businesses to provide all unclaimed money to the Department of Revenue to assist Wisconsinites searching for unclaimed assets.
Wisconsin's treasurer's office once played a much more active role in state government and the executive branch, but its powers were gradually whittled away by the Legislature. In 2003, for instance, the treasurer lost control of debt management. Twelve years later in 2015, the Legislature moved unsuccessfully to abolish the treasurer's office entirely.
Due to a decadeslong effort to erode its powers, Wisconsin is home to one of the weakest treasurer's offices in the nation.
The state treasurer's salary is $72,551 according to the Legislative Reference Bureau.
Who are the Republicans running for treasurer?
Owens is the southeast regional director for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson's office and the co-founder of the Joseph Project, a faith-based workforce development organization. Owens, a Milwaukee resident, worked alongside Johnson for seven years leading up to his run for treasurer.
In 2020, Owens launched an unsuccessful campaign to represent the heavily Democratic 11th Assembly District in Milwaukee, losing to current Democratic Rep. Dora Drake by a margin of just over 15,000 votes.
Leiber is an attorney from Racine who was a board member of his local Republican Party, the president of his neighborhood parks and recreation commission and a housing authority commissioner.
Leiber has also worked as a Republican staffer and campaign manager and reviewed tax returns for the Department of Revenue.
Who are the Democrats running for treasurer?
Three Democrats are running: Angelito Tenorio and Aaron Richardson — who draw on local government experience — and Gillian Battino, who is making her first foray into electoral politics. Battino jumped into the treasurer's race after dropping out of the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
Tenorio is an alderman from West Allis who sits on the city's Finance Committee. Tenorio, a son of Filipino immigrants, worked for Wisconsin Conservation Voters — an environmental advocacy group — and is also a veteran of the Wisconsin National Guard. At the age of 26, he is the youngest candidate seeking statewide office this election cycle.
Tenorio said he ran unsuccessfully for the Dane County Board of Supervisors before launching a bid for office in West Allis.
Battino is a radiologist from Wausau and a former University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Medicine fellow who worked in a variety of South American and Caribbean countries including Nicaragua and Guyana.
Battino said she dropped her bid for Senate after concluding the race was unwinnable for a candidate who "does not have an extensive network of fundraising or extensive personal wealth."
Richardson is the mayor of Fitchburg and a former Fitchburg City Council and Parks and Recreation Committee member who chaired the city's Housing Committee. He was elected mayor in 2019.
Richardson also works in tech support in the neighboring Oregon School District.
What are Republican priorities in the race?
For Republicans, a clear divide emerged between Owens and Leiber regarding the treasurer's role, with Owens advocating for returning powers to the office that had been stripped away over time.
Specifically, Owens said he hoped a Republican Legislature and governor would return the ability to conduct audits currently in the hands of the Department of Revenue to the treasurer, allowing him to analyze the distribution of funding.
"We would also have the ability to subpoena the state's books and try to follow the money," Owens said. "Where's it being spent? Who got it? The people of Wisconsin deserve a breakdown of where the money went and how it was spent."
Leiber attacked the idea of expanding the treasurer's role, arguing the current distribution of responsibilities allowed the office to focus most directly on a handful of tasks.
Leiber described efforts to shift responsibilities back to the treasury as "piecemeal" and "random" and said he did not believe such a move would benefit the state.
"I don't believe there's really a reason for the treasurer to be taking on more roles just for the sake of taking on work," Leiber said. "I just don't believe in expanding government just for the sake of giving a treasurer more to do."
Owens highlighted expanding the state's manufacturing and agricultural workforces as central to his candidacy and said he hoped to work with the governor's office to implement a statewide version of his organization the Joseph Project — which focuses specifically on the manufacturing sector — as a model to do so.
"The main priority for me is definitely workforce development, economic development, and having transparency in our government right now," Owens said. "I want to implement things like the Joseph Project on a much larger scale.
Leiber, who described himself as a "fiscal conservative," said he intends to focus on maintaining the existing scope of the office and working to cut spending.
"I wouldn't make the treasurer seem like more than it actually is," Leiber said. "I think the people of Wisconsin want somebody in treasurer's office to make sure not to spend any more than necessary."
What are Democratic priorities in the race?
Democrats struck a much different tone than their conservative counterparts, each seeking to wield what little power the treasury has to tackle large-scale societal and environmental issues.
Richardson said he is looking to use the treasury to build on a program piloted in Fitchburg that he said allowed the city government to purchase homes, rent them to low-income tenants for reduced prices and allocate a portion of the rent toward a down payment, allowing occupants to eventually purchase a home from the city.
"I want to do a program to help get people into homes and buy homes," Richardson said. "That is where you're really changing people's lives. You're generating generational wealth and impacting not only the people buying it but their kids, their grandkids."
Battino, meanwhile, said working to increase funding for public schools statewide is among her top priorities.
"Over the last year as I traveled the state, folks are talking about the things I’ve worried about, and it’s really basic day-to-day statewide issues," Battino said. "I think the first one that really hit home was educational funding. About 45% of our funding for education comes from the state and only 5% from the federal government."
Tenorio emphasized the treasurer's role on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands and said he hopes to use the office as a mechanism to address climate change, which he called "the most pressing issue of our time."
Tenorio cited collaborative efforts to invest in solar panels between Washburn County and the BCPL as a blueprint for potential green economic development he would pursue.
"We can invest in clean energy projects, we can work with local communities to be more climate resilient and be more sustainable about our infrastructure," Tenorio said. "It's been good for jobs, it's been good for the environment and it saved the (Washburn) community money, and I believe that we can do more of that work with the right leadership at the state treasurer's office."
Among Democrats, the race's three-way primary exposed fault lines regarding messaging and governing strategy, with all three candidates seeking to brand themselves as progressives but taking varying stances on what a winning formula on the campaign trail might look like for a party facing a difficult election environment.
Battino stressed that she supports many topline priorities of national progressives but believes the eventual Democratic nominee should lean into an attitude of partisan unity.
"I think we need to be bipartisan," Battino said. "I feel like there is a little bit of tendency to focus on being a die-hard progressive, which I absolutely am. When I was running for Senate, I was getting up there with Tom Nelson saying 'Medicare for All and Green New Deal,' but the success of this office and what it brings to the economic stability and the wellness of our state is nonpartisan."
Tenorio said he is not opposed to bipartisan cooperation but is cautious to prioritize negotiating with a Republican Party that has been largely unwilling to compromise with Democrats since gaining control of the Legislature 12 years ago.
"Wisconsin has been terribly gerrymandered and Republicans have such a grip on the Legislature and it's been difficult, as I've seen, for Democrats to try to work with Republicans across the aisle," Tenorio said. "I believe in bipartisanship, but I also fully recognize how difficult and impossible it can be to work with Republicans in the Legislature."
Richardson said prioritizing experience and personal qualifications may resonate with voters who are uneasy at the prospect of electing Democrats. He argued his experience breaking down and overseeing budgets for residents of Fitchburg best positions him to assuage voters' concerns.
"The primary thing for me is making sure we have the most qualified people," Richardson said. "I think on the other side of that when the budget comes out, I'm mostly uniquely qualified to explain that to people throughout the state, how it impacts them."
When are the elections?
The Republican and Democratic primary elections for treasurer are Aug. 9. The top finisher from each party will face each other in the Nov. 8 general election.
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: In Wisconsin primary election 2022 here are state treasurer candidates