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Breaking the Bank: Treasurer candidates raising more money than ever before

State treasurer isn’t the political plum that other executive offices have been for ambitious politicians, but some of this year’s candidates are raising and spending money like the office is the first step toward the Ninth Floor, Congress and beyond.

Already, businessman Doug Ducey has spent $580,000 in his four-way Republican primary, more than every treasurer candidate from 2002 and 2006 combined. He has put in at least $180,000 of his own money and is already running television ads for his campaign, which is unheard of in a primary for state treasurer.

Andrei Cherny, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, has raised more than a half-million dollars and has the backing of political titans such as former Vice President Al Gore.

In addition, both candidates have ambitious agendas for the office that go far beyond the traditional, constitutionally mandated duties of the state treasurer. Ducey said he wants to use the office to partner with the Governor’s Office on major economic development proposals, while Cherny said he plans to use the state’s investment pool to bolster local businesses and encourage renewable energy use.

Political insiders have speculated that Cherny and Ducey are hoping the Treasurer’s Office can be a springboard to a higher office, though both candidates insist that’s not part of the strategy.

Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, faces Sens. Barbara Leff and Thayer Verschoor and former Rep. Ted Carpenter in the Republican primary. Leff said Ducey’s big spending and exaggerated ideas about the role of the Treasurer’s Office are indicative of greater ambition.

“I think Doug Ducey and Andrei Cherny are preparing for the next step, which for Doug Ducey, I believe, is preparing to be governor one day, not because they want to do the job of treasurer,” Leff said.

As a Clean Elections candidate, Leff had about $114,000 to spend on her campaign, while Verschoor’s last campaign finance report at the end of June showed that he had raised about $35,000. Carpenter reported raising about $5,000.

Carpenter, Leff and Verschoor have fairly traditional platforms in terms of what they want to accomplish as treasurer, and said they would largely carry on the work outgoing Treasurer Dean Martin has done.

“The state treasurer is the state banker,” Verschoor said.

Carpenter said the treasurer’s job is important, and candidates should focus on the treasurer’s official duties before taking on new roles.

“My whole motto is you do what you get paid to do. You’re paid to be treasurer when you take that office. You’re not paid to be the governor … or anything else,” he said.

Cherny and Ducey, however, said the office can be so much more than that. Cherny opened his campaign in early 2009 on a platform of radically transforming the way state money is invested. One of the treasurer’s primary duties is managing the state’s $10 billion investment pool, as well as other pools for local governments and state land trust money.

An Arizona state treasurer has never become governor, and the office has rarely been a stepping stone to anything higher. But Martin, the incumbent, has given newfound prominence to the office.

As the Legislature and governor battled over the budget, Martin became a third force in the process, speaking out on faltering revenue projections and the state’s dwindling cash flow. Former Gov. Janet Napolitano famously called him “Chicken Little” for his pessimistic — and ultimately correct — predictions, and he became a voice of opposition to the sales tax increase Gov. Jan Brewer proposed shortly after taking office.

Martin parlayed that profile into a run for governor, though he dropped out of the Republican primary in July after Brewer’s popularity and approval ratings soared in the wake of her signing SB1070, Arizona’s popular illegal immigration law. But when Martin entered the race in January he was viewed as Brewer’s strongest challenger and many people expected him to be Arizona’s next governor, largely due to his advocacy at the Treasurer’s Office.

Verschoor would not comment on whether he thought Cherny or Ducey were angling for a higher office. But he said the recession and Martin showed what kind of impact the Treasurer’s Office can have, and aspiring candidates who want to make their marks on the state may be looking for a race in which their money can do the most good for them.

“I think some folks were looking for a lower profile office that perhaps that kind of money would have a larger impact in than it would’ve had if they did what they really wanted to do,” he said.

Neither Cherny nor Ducey ruled out a run for higher office one day, though both said they weren’t running to set up a future campaign. Cherny noted that treasurers have not historically risen past that office.

“I guess I don’t rule anything out,” Cherny said. “But I don’t think one runs to be treasurer of a state that’s on the brink of insolvency with an eye to having a launching pad for a future political career.”

Cherny reported raising about $500,000 at the end of June, and his fundraising has been bolstered by close ties to Gore and former President Bill Clinton. Cherny said Republican U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl is rumored to have helped convince Ducey to get into the race to keep Cherny out of the Treasurer’s Office. Ducey and a Kyl spokesman said the rumor is not true, though Ducey said he spoke with the senator before getting into the race.

Ducey, who has never run for office, said he is focused only on the job of treasurer. Part of the appeal of the office, he said, is to try to help shepherd the state through its fiscal crisis.

“I’m focused heavily on this primary. I’ve entered a whole new world in terms of the political realm. I’m learning as I’m going,” Ducey said.

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