GOP star Simpler touts reform efforts in run for 2nd term as state treasurer

DOVER — In 2014, Ken Simpler became the first non-incumbent Delaware Republican to win a statewide election in 20 years, pulling in a majority of votes cast in the race for state treasurer.

Almost immediately, he was heralded as the next big thing for the Delaware GOP, touted as a potential future gubernatorial candidate.

Mr. Simpler, however, has consistently shot down such talk, stressing his focus is on the duties of the treasurer’s office.

This year, as the 51-year-old seeks a second term in a position he describes as similar to a company’s chief financial officer, he is facing a challenge from Democrat Colleen Davis, a financial consultant in the health care field.

With Auditor Tom Wagner, the only other Republican in a statewide office, not seeking reelection, the treasurer’s race carries extra implications for both parties.

Ken Simpler

Both in this campaign and in his 2014 bid, Mr. Simpler has leaned on his financial experience as a CFO for a hotel company and as a hedge fund manager.

In the latter role, working at Citadel LLC, he managed a billion-dollar portfolio, he said.

“If there were a job interview for anything other than state government … and her resume and my resume were submitted to a company, would this be a close contest?” he asked.

For her part, Ms. Davis, 38, believes she is more in touch with the average Delawarean than Mr. Simpler, whom she described as having an “elitist” way of speaking.

“I’m someone who’s going to work hard to do the job,” she said. “I’m someone who’s committed to people, and I just don’t know that that’s the case for my opponent.”

Delaware’s treasurer is responsible for overseeing investments, debt, banking infrastructure and several financial plans.

The officeholder also serves on a variety of commissions and panels, such as the State Employee Benefits Committee and the Board of Pardons.

The treasurer’s office is seldom in the spotlight, but it received attention during the four-year tenure of Chip Flowers, Mr. Simpler’s predecessor.

Mr. Flowers, a Democrat, butted heads with lawmakers, the governor and the board that invests funds and was criticized when his deputy in the office was revealed to have purchased NFL tickets and charged them to a state credit card. Amidst the controversy, he ultimately opted not to run for reelection.

Mr. Flowers’ actions almost certainly drove some voters to Mr. Simpler, who pulled in 53.6 percent of the vote.

Since being sworn in in January 2015, the Republican has focused on reviewing and overhauling many systems put in places decades ago and barely altered since. He’s advocated for creating better ways to measure success in a variety of areas, noting state government’s results don’t match its relatively high spending in areas like education.

“If you don’t set goals and you don’t measure your progress toward them and you just go through an annual process of allocating dollars toward the things you’re already doing, you’re basically a maintenance organization,” he said.

Mr. Simpler said he changed the state’s college and retirement plans for the first time in approximately two decades, giving state employees more options at a lesser cost, and also led a year-and-a-half effort to invest in different funds, generating another 1 percent in interest — equivalent to $16 to $20 million.

If reelected, he intends to overhaul the state’s banking structure, which he said could save millions and free up some state employees to handle other tasks.

He believes officials are too “caught up in the simple annual task of balancing the budget,” causing them to fail to focus on the long-term picture.

To combat that, the treasurer helped devise a bipartisan proposal aimed at stabilizing the state’s financial outlook by setting aside revenue when it exceeds a certain level.

That money would then be used to help balance the budget in down years.

Although the concept was supported by Gov. John Carney and many others, the bill failed to advance in the General Assembly this year, owing mainly to the opposition of a few powerful Democratic lawmakers.

Placing more emphasis on results and creating a “budget smoothing” fund could allow Delawareans to get better services without raising taxes, Mr. Simpler believes.

In essence, he supports spending smarter rather than spending more — a stance that incorporates both Republican and Democratic beliefs.

Colleen Davis

Ms. Davis, in contrast, sees Mr. Simpler’s public backing of the budget smoothing concept as an “overreach” and expressed hesitation about altering the Delaware Constitution.

She is running to protect vital services by ensuring they are adequately funded and hopes to speed up payments made to contractors and to shift responsibility for managing billions of taxpayer dollars away from consultants.

“I’m looking to steward our finances better,” she said.

Like Mr. Simpler, she cites her background when speaking to voters, although her story centers on her upbringing. Raised near Baltimore, her family moved to Sussex County after her father — who served as chairman of the Sussex County Republican Party from 2015 to 2017 — became ill and his business partner absconded with their company’s funds.

After college, she started her career as a physician’s assistant and later got into the finances of health care.

“From there I’ve been helping major hospital systems to (be more efficient in) their payment models, improving on their quality. It’s a pretty complex field,” she said.

Her experience is a point of contention between the two candidates, with Mr. Simpler arguing she is ill-prepared to manage billions of dollars.

Because it is an elected office, the position of state treasurer is inherently political, but Mr. Simpler believes voters will pick the most qualified candidate regardless of party affiliation.

“In every audience I’ve ever been in there has been a sense of relief that someone’s looking after our long-term finances, that someone cares about how we’re doing, whether we’re getting better,” he said.

That focus on the big picture and on delivering more value for residents has driven the talk he would be a prime candidate for governor in either 2020 or 2024. Some have drawn comparisons to Jack Markell, a Democrat who was elected treasurer in 1998 and subsequently earning reelection twice before running for and winning the governor’s seat in 2008.

Regardless of any future political ambitions he may or may not have, Mr. Simpler is for now set on defending his position.

As of Sunday, he had collected about $162,900 this year and had almost $93,400 available, while Ms. Davis had raised about $30,200 and had $12,800 on hand.

Also running is Green Party nominee David Chandler, who gained 2.8 percent of the vote in a 2014 bid for the seat. He reported raising and spending no funds.

 

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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