Democrats in Ohio thirst for the chance to boot Treasurer Josh Mandel out of statewide office this coming Tuesday. In fact, the first name mentioned out of Ohio Democratic Party canvassers knocking door-to-door is Mandel’s challenger, state Rep. Connie Pillich, of Montgomery.
Pillich has represented Ohio’s 28th House district since 2009, having before that obtained her law degree from the University of Cincinnati, served in the United States Air Force in Operation Desert Storm and again in Desert Shield, and practiced law as a partner in Webb & Pillich in Hamilton County. She has been a 26-year Hamilton County resident.
“Everywhere I go people are struggling,” Pillich says in an interview last month. “They are working twice as hard, getting half as far, and they’re really frustrated with a government that seems so remote from their everyday challenges.”
Pillich has been criss-crossing Ohio in the final push before Election Day, sending out the message that it’s time for a change, and pointing to her background in banking law as putting her in the best position to appropriately manage the state’s investments.
The frustration over Mandel is mounting, Pillich notes, saying she is constantly hearing from Ohioans who are fed up with his politicization and posturing.
“I’ve been on the campaign trail for 19 months. His name recognition is very high and people consider him to be more interested in his political career than in public service,” she says.
Pillich said her first priority would be to be a hands-on treasurer who is hard at work every day.
“This is a technical office and it requires technical skills and strong attention to detail because this is where the money is kept,” she said. “It’s a central hub for receiving all the money that comes into the state and spending the money to pay all of the state’s bills.”
She notes the importance of the office’s role as a custodian for the state pension system, and also has a key role in growing the economy by managing state investments.
One major proposal for reform, she said, is to install an inspector general in the treasurer’s office.
“For quite a while politics have been very influential in what’s going on in the treasurer’s office and it’s really a place where we should not have any politics,” she says. “This is where the money is. There’s nothing red or blue about balancing the state’s checkbook, this is about the green. We need someone who is going to be interested in the bottom line.”
She points to previous examples of corruption in the treasurer’s office as creating a need for an inspector general.
“This would be an independent watchdog who would be charged to protect the taxpayers and respond to any charges of fraud, waste, and abuse, corruption, mismanagement, including ethical and political issues,” she says. “This person would be a truly independent watchdog because the position would be appointed by four legislative leaders, two Republicans and two Democrats. And the person would be explicitly prohibited from participating in any partisan political activities.”
Instead of Josh Mandel being in the news for handing the state’s money, Pillich notes, he’s most predominately been making headlines for his connection to Benjamin Suarez and the campaign finance scandal surrounding him.
“The sworn testimony that came out of the Suarez trial was alarming and very troubling,” Pillich says. “We learned that Josh Mandel met with Benjamin Suarez privately at his house, and as a result of that meeting Treasurer Mandel used his office to threaten another state. And three days later $100,000 began to pour into his campaign account. It’s no wonder people are frustrated by politicians. You need to look no further than Josh Mandel to see how bad it can get.”
The most important takeaway here, she says, is that it costs $100,000 apparently to have access to the Ohio Treasuer’s Office letterhead under Josh Mandel’s watch.
“That is not right. That is not how the place where we keep everybody’s money should be run,” she says. “When I sat down with Josh Mandel before the editorial board of the Plain Dealer, he said he signs thousands of letters. But he could not think of a single other one where he had taken such dramatic action.
With the fact that Mandel never had to testify in the Suarez trial, and with it being clear that whatever testimony he could’ve offered would’ve helped the prosecution, the biggest question remained unanswered from that situation is, what did Josh Mandel know?
“What did he know about that transaction that would be a help to a criminal prosecution? And why didn’t he bring it forward?” she questions. “We don’t know.”
From Day 1, Pillich charges, Mandel has been more interested in what the position of treasurer can do for his political career than what he can do as treasurer to help the people of Ohio. Of course, conjecture around Ohio already abounds about which position Mandel will seek next when he sees his next political opportunity. Republicans have tried to charge that Pillich is positioning herself politically as well. She smacks that idea down right away.
“I’m absolutely committed to serving in this office for a full four-year term,” she says. “Josh Mandel just won’t confirm that, so like he has before and just like every other office he’s held he’s already looking for the next office to run for.”
Pillich points to her rank as captain in the Air Force, her obtaining an MBA and her running of a law firm as examples of her training to take this leadership position and be a problem-solver.
“I practice in banking law. And I have a documented history of a long commitment to public service,” she says.
With regard to her banking law background, Pillich notes, she is uniquely suited to manage state investments and protect public monies such as pensions from predatory banking practices that can wreak havoc on the economy, such as we saw in 2008.
“The number one duty of the treasurer is to safeguard the people’s money. That comes before anything else,” she says, and lays out three over-arching rules she would abide by as treasurer when investing with the state’s portfolio.
No. 1, the money has to be there, no matter what. “I’ll make sure whatever we invest in is safe and secure,” she says.
No. 2 is liquidity. “I’ve got to be able to pay the bills so I’ve got to have stuff I can convert into cash pretty quickly to pay the bills on a daily basis.”
No. 3 is the yield. “This money has got to work for the people of Ohio. So every dollar under my control will be invested every minute of every day. So whether I use sweep accounts, or short-term instruments, or longer-term notes that have a better yield, whatever mix can give us the best return on our money—while adhering to rule No. 1 which is safety, and No. 2, being able to pay the bills.”
She says the state needs a hands-on treasurer to know what’s going on in the state and national economies.
“The treasurer is the custodian of public pensions,” she says. “The treasurer has to be on top of these things to make sure we get the best yield for the pensions so they have long-term health and security, making sure that as much money can be invested into the pensions as possible rather than paying exorbitant bank fees.”
With local government funds being slashed by the Republican legislature and governor, Pillich said the treasurer’s office could help political subdivisions make their investment dollars go further by providing advice if asked. Moreover, she said, she could personally play a role as an advocate on that issue.
“Really the crux of my campaign is to get the politics out of that office. Let’s get someone in there with an eye for detail who really wants to be doing the job,” she says. “This is an important election. We have a lot riding on this.”
She points to misleading claims she says Mandel has been making, for instance, his claim that he helped reverse an “$8 billion debt.”
“Ohio didn’t have an $8 billion debt,” she says. “Ohio had a projected deficit. Knowing the difference between a debt and a deficit is kind of important for our state’s chief fiscal officer, and the fact that Josh doesn’t know it is pretty disturbing.”
She points to Mandel’s claims that he balanced the state budget.
“I’m surprised that he served in the state legislature for four years and never noticed that it’s the state legislature who balances the budget and the governor signs it,” she says. “Somehow Josh missed that.”
She also slams Mandel for using the Ohio Strong award to reward campaign donors instead of using it to reward successful entrepreneurs as it is intended.
“We need someone who is interested in doing this job who actually knows what it entails, who has a background that is appropriate,” she says. “We can do better, and we have to do better. I think what it all boils down to is at the end of the day when people lay their head down on their pillow they need to know that there is someone in Columbus fighting for us, someone with an eye for detail who is going to safeguard our tax dollars, protect our pensions, and do everything she can to grow the economy. That’s the commitment I bring to this job.”