WASHINGTON, D.C. — Buoyed by some major endorsements and a campaign kitty flush with funds in excess of $500,000, which is more than a seven to one advantage over his Democratic opponents, including Charlotte Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera and even the Republican incumbent, Aaron ‘Ronnie’ Chatterji, a tenured associate professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, who previously served as a senior economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, is on tap to easily win the Democratic primary for the post of treasurer of North Carolina.
And, as predicted, if he prevails in the primary slated for March 3, and then goes on to beat the GOP incumbent Dale Folwell, who was elected the state’s Treasurer in 2016, Chatterji would become the first Asian American to hold this post and serve as the state’s chief financial officer and official banker for the state.
The North Carolina Office of the Treasurer manages the state's retirement system, investments, and unclaimed property, and provides financial support to local governments.
It’s one of the most powerful elected positions in the state, managing the $100 billion pension fund and state employee health care system of 720,000 people, and oversees all state and local bonds.
At the time of India Abroad going to press, the editorial boards of both the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, the state’s leading newspapers endorsed Chatterji, with the Charlotte Observer favoring Chatterji over the city’s own councilwoman Ajmera and the other Democratic candidate in the primary Matt Leatherman, who earlier served as the policy director in the state’s Office of the Treasurer and now is director of FCLT Global.
In their endorsement, the newspaper said that Chatterji “would bring energy and imagination to the treasurer’s office, along with a deep understanding of business and economics.”
An elated Chatterji said, “I am grateful that North Carolina's two largest newspapers believe that I am the best choice to be the Democratic nominee for one of the most important positions in our state government.”
Earlier, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, active in Durham since 1935, advocating to address the challenges and opportunities facing the African American community, also endorsed him as their candidate for North Carolina treasurer, as had the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) an several other organizations and unions, including the AFL-CIO.
Chatterji said, “The grassroots support we gained across Durham this past week has been inspiring,” and pointed out that “Durham constitutes an important share of the primary voting population in North Carolina,” and predicted that with this other major endorsements “we have a solid foundation to win statewide.”
He said that in the case of the NCAE, it had “carefully evaluated all of the candidates and chose us as their champion on the issues that matter most to their membership. Notably, they did not make an endorsement in all statewide races.
“Given the treasurer’s crucial role in protecting pensions and healthcare for educators, NCAE prioritized our race from the very beginning and gave us their vote of confidence,” Chatterji said.
NCAE represents tens of thousands of educators across the state,” and according to Chatterji, “This endorsement will strengthen our ground game even further, and we can proudly say that we are the only candidate endorsed statewide by labor and educators.”
“Both of my parents are public educators, so this vote of confidence is particularly meaningful to me,” he added, and expressed confidence that “with North Carolina’s educators behind me, we are on track to win this primary and the general election in November.”
A leading Indian American community leader in North Carolina, who wished to remain anonymous because of the fact that two Indian Americans were candidates in the primary for the state treasurer position, told India Abroad that Chatterji was at a distinct advantage over Ajmera because “Ronnie jumped in the race early (in April 2019) on and secured funds and support from significant players including those in the Indian community, while Dimple only entered in late December — kind of late.”
“Both on paper and otherwise,” the community leader said, “Ronnie as the early mover and money advantage, and couple with the endorsements from the editorial boards of both of our state’s leading newspapers, clearly in the favorite.”
However, he said, “If there’s an advantage or edge that can be said of Dimple, is that “she has fought a couple of elections and is a savvy politician, and since December has also raised a significant amount of money but far less than Ronnie.”
Asked about Chatterji’s chances of beating the incumbent in November, the community leader who is a longtime political activist and very much aware of the political pulse in the state, noted, “The treasurer before Folwell, the Republican incumbent was a Democrat. And, so, since it is a statewide election, the Democrats have a really good chance to regain this post.
“But a lot depends on who is on the presidential ticket and their coattails and how Roy Cooper (the Democratic governor) does in the governor’s election,” he added.
On Feb. 26, in Morrisville, a suburb of Raleigh, which boasts of one of the largest Indian American populations in the state, with an erstwhile Indian American pro-tem mayor and a city councilman, the North Carolina Indian American Political Action Committee (NCINPAC) hosted a packed candidates forum with Chatterji and Ajmera that was moderated by state Senator Jay Chaudhuri and Dr. Subhash Gumber.
At the outset, NCINPAC Chairman Mani Sundaram in his welcoming remarks made clear that the PAC was nonpartisan and works across party lines in in state and local affairs and among its objectives “is to engage the Indian American community in the political process, be the voice of the community and a liaison with elected state and civic officials and as an advocate on behalf of members of our community seeking important and influential state, county and local level positions.”
In their opening remarks, Chatterji said that he’s “a self-proclaimed nerd,” and emphasized the his “financial expertise” as tailor made for this role as state treasurer.
He recounted his training at the University of California, Berkeley, his tenure on the Obama White House Economic Council, his work for Gov. Cooper on two statewide commissions on economic policy and his research work in making a case for his candidacy.
Ajmera emphasized her experience as the city councilwoman in Charlotte, where she had to demonstrate “collaborative skills across various boards to get things done.”
She also gave an emotional account of how after her father’s passing, in order to make a difference, led her to quit her lucrative job in financial services “to take up public service,” and believes her “public service record, CPA background and work in the financial services industry” had prepared her for the treasurer position.
Ajmera also said she would bring to the table her priorities she had pushed for as a councilwoman and noted that they “included affordable housing, living wage, strategic energy plans and economic development.”
Chaudhuri told India Abroad that the NCINPAC forum was “historic because for the first time in our state's history two extraordinarily qualified Indian-Americans are running for a statewide office, and as the former general counsel to our past state treasurer and a current member of the North Carolina State Senate, it was a honor to co-moderate the forum."
State Representative Gale Adcock said, “It was refreshing to attend a forum where the candidates were obviously knowledgeable, actually answered the questions, offered fresh ideas and did not criticize each other — all in an hour. I commend NCINPAC for sponsoring this successful event.”
Morrisville Councilman Satish Garimalla, said, “With 171,000 Asian American voters in North Carolina, it’s important to have Indian Americans running for statewide races. Ronnie and Dimple are two such excellent and capable candidates for the treasurer’s office.
Another councilman, Steve Rao, a former mayor pro-tem of Morrisville, lauded Chatterji and Ajmera for running and even though competing against each other, also “paving the way for others to run for higher office.”
He said, “It is a huge win for our entire community and we are grateful that such well qualified candidates are running for state treasurer,” and argued, “A win by either of them in the primary and general election will be a game changing event for the North Carolina South Asian community and the entire state of North Carolina.”
Gautam Desai, a longtime political and community activist, said, “While we find it difficult to choose between two of our most qualified, brightest next-gen leaders, we should rejoice in how far we have come to secure two-thirds of a chance to elect an Indian American to the crucial post of state treasurer.”
He said, “Whether it is a CPA with proven track record of second term electability and negotiating difficult budgeting decisions in the largest and most diverse city of in North Carolina, or a PhD whose policy expertise has been tapped by President Obama and Governor Cooper, whether it is a female accountant with experiences of investing deep coalition building and holding elected public office or a self-confessed nerd, well published professor with a prestigious university, the Indian Americans are offering their best and the brightest to the state.”
Anuj Mittal, a leading entrepreneur and community activist, said, “Both candidates are running for a very important and influential state level position and whatever the outcome, will bring a lot to the table with their experience and expertise.
“As North Carolinians and Indian Americans, we are proud to have them represent us, “ he said, and added, “This event will go a long ways in helping the community decide their support for either candidate.”
Bharat Vedak, co-chairman of NCPAC, told India Abroad that “the forum exceeded all of our expectations, both in terms of the turnout and the interactions with both candidates, which obviously would have certainly helped those present, who have not made up their minds, have an opportunity to meet the candidates in person and decide on their choice.
“There was a lot of energy in the room” he said, “and both candidates were very impressive and articulated their positions well and certainly helped those present get an opportunity to gauge their background and approaches.”
Ishan Sehgal, a former chairman of NCINPAC, said, “Having two Indian-American candidates running for the democratic nomination of state Treasurer is a strong indication of the rising investment of the Indian American community in key statewide races.”
His sentiments were echoed by Bhaskar Venepalli, another ex-NCINPAC chairman, who said, “It is gratifying to see two young, energetic and smart candidates of Indian origin contesting for a statewide position.This is a true validation of NCINPAC’s vision and goal of encouraging people of Indian origin to participate in the political process.”
Interestingly, Chatterji is an alumnus of the Washington Leadership Program (Class of 1999), conceived and sponsored by the founder and erstwhile publisher of India Abroad—the late Gopal Raju — who ran WLP for over 15 years. Chatterji, as a WLP scholar interned with Rep. Elliot Engel (D.N.Y.), now the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In May, when he declared his intent to run, Chatterji, in an interview with India Abroad said he had decided to run for treasurer driven by “my long-standing passion for policy, business, and public service.”
He acknowledged that “my research and teaching have led me directly to this decision. I love the work I do, and I believe that rigorous analysis is the foundation of good policy.”
Chatterji added, “My public service, from working at the White House Council of Economic Advisers to volunteering on political campaigns, has taught me that translating good analysis into clear and concise language and engaging stakeholders is essential too.
“The final piece of the puzzle is that dedicated and practical people need to run for office and get elected,” he argued, and while acknowledging that “the financial and personal sacrifice required keeps most of us away,” said, “But after many discussions with family and friends, I have decided that some of us must try and that I’m going to go for it.”
During his tenure with the CEA at the White House, Chatterji worked on a range of policies relating to entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth, and after leaving the Obama administration and joining the faculty of Duke University’s business school and continued to research and teach some of these important forces shaping the U.S. and global economy, and has been regularly published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
In 2014-2015 academic year, he was on leave at Harvard Business School, and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Chatterji received his Ph.D from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and his B.A. in economics and international relations from Cornell University.
From the time he did the WLP internship, Chatterji has continued to be a political activist and in 2008 he was a key organizer in North Carolina for Obama, and in previous interviews with India Abroad, would always acknowledge the profound impact this program had in his activism and public service.