Editorial: The standout pick for California treasurer is 31 years old

Vivek Viswanathan is the real deal.

The 31-year-old Democratic candidate for state treasurer understands California policy better than any other candidate we’ve interviewed this year. His mastery of complex issues surpasses most elected officials twice his age.

His brings a mix of progressive values and appreciation for fiscal reality that eludes most candidates for local and statewide office. If only there were more like him.

Viswanathan, if he can overcome special interests that dominate California elections, has the potential to be a great leader. We wholeheartedly recommend voters back him in the June 5 election.

The son of immigrants from India, he has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s degree in history from the University of Cambridge. And he’s a Stanford-trained lawyer and MBA.

But, as impressive as his academic credentials are, it’s his real-world experience as a policy advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and, most recently, a special advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown that have clearly shaped his politics.

His policy work has included climate change, health care, infrastructure, mental health and disability rights. And, as we found discussing financing of single-payer health care and public employee pensions with him, he’s mastered the details.

None of his three serious opponents — Republican Jack Guerrero, a bank vice president; Republican Greg Conlon, a certified public accountant who has twice run unsuccessfully for the same post; and Democrat Fiona Ma, a member of the state Board of Equalization — comes close. And none is as articulate and thoughtful about the challenges the next state treasurer will face.

California has one of the nation’s worst state credit ratings. Standard and Poor’s ranks only five states — Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — worse.

Meanwhile California state and local governments have racked up hundreds of billions of dollars of debt for underfunded public employee pension and retiree health plans.

The State Treasurer’s Office, with nearly 400 employees, has a huge portfolio, both of money it manages for California and areas of responsibility, including the 63 boards on which the treasurer or his designee sits.

That includes the boards of the nation’s two leading pension plans, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.

Which is why Viswanathan’s mastery of pension issues is so refreshing. He supports the governor’s Supreme Court legal challenge to the state’s ridiculous public employee pension vesting rules. He’s read the cases and can quote key points of the appellate court decisions.

And he says — correctly — that the badly underfunded pension systems must stop banking on unrealistic assumptions about future investment earnings. It’s those ridiculous forecasts that are one of the root causes of the state’s pension crisis.

Ma, the highest profile candidate in the race and currently an elected member of the state Board of Equalization, is the polar opposite. On pension issues, she has long carried water for public employee unions.

While a member of the state Assembly, she authored legislation in 2010 purporting to be pension reform that would have actually legitimized illegal spiking of retirement pay.  The bill would have also shut off public access to public employee pension records.

Criticism led by this news organization and from other newspapers across the state stopped what would have been a travesty.

Eight years later, Ma still resists meaningful change. She opposes Brown’s legal challenge and says the pension funds’ unrealistic investment forecasts are just fine.

And she said the state should only aim to fund pensions at 80 percent, a union talking point designed to push current costs onto future generations that has been discredited by pension actuaries. After being questioned about that, in an email to us the following day, she reversed herself.

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But it was clear that, after all these years, she still puts public employee union interests ahead of solving California’s pension crisis. That’s not the sort of leader we need on the boards of the two largest retirement funds or managing the state’s money.

Especially not when voters have a far-superior option. Viswanathan is one of the smartest candidates this state has seen in a long time. He’s the sort of future leader California desperately needs.

Source: FS – All – Interesting – News 2
Editorial: The standout pick for California treasurer is 31 years old