Ameya Pawar, Peter Gariepy, Melissa-Conyears-Ervin [Submitted]

Chicago’s three candidates in the wide-open race for Chicago treasurer want the office charged with managing the city’s $8 billion investment portfolio as well as five retirement funds to play a more prominent role as the city grapples with a looming pension crisis.

City Treasurer Kurt Summers, who flirted with a run for mayor before announcing that he would not seek another term, has not endorsed any of his potential successors.

Summers, a former chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle who is running for Chicago mayor, championed a $100 million investment fund in an effort to breathe new life into the South and West sides of Chicago and help fight crime and blight with affordable loans between $100,000 and $1 million — but the fund has yet to make its first investment despite being approved by the Chicago City Council in October 2016.

Ameya Pawar, who served two terms as 47th Ward alderman, said the treasurer should be an “aggressive advocate” for social change by using city dollars to pay off residents’ student loans, smooth the legalization and banking of marijuana, and push corporations to better represent workers. Pawar has been endorsed by U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Jan Schakowsky, SEIU Local 1 and St. Sabina pastor the Rev. Michael Pfleger.

Pawar, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor in March, has $212,000 in cash on hand, according to the Illinois Sunshine database.

Peter Gariepy, an accountant who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas in the March Democratic primary, describes himself as the “grounded one” to hold down the fort during “an unprecedented time of financial challenge for the City of Chicago.” Gariepy has the backing of Ald. Scott Waguespack (32). Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1) and Ald. John Arena (45) served on his exploratory committee.

Gariepy has $49,000 in cash on hand, according to Illinois Sunshine.

Melissa Conyears-Ervin (D-Chicago), elected in 2016 to represent a West Side district in the Illinois House, has the support of the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago Federation of Labor as well as Secretary of State Jesse White, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, and more than two dozen incumbent aldermen.

Conyears-Ervin is married to 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin, who is running for re-election. The 28th Ward Democratic Organization, which is controlled by Ervin, gave Conyears-Ervin’s treasurer campaign $5,000 on Feb. 1, on top of $56,000 in in-kind donations in December, according to reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Conyears-Ervin has more than $255,000 in cash on hand, according to Illinois Sunshine.

Conyears-Ervin said the treasurer should serve as “an independent financial watchdog” to serve everyone across the city, and has proposed taking over the auditing functions now performed by the Council Office of Financial Analysis and the city’s sister agencies.  

Pawar’s proposal to create a public bank has dominated much of the conversation around the race. Under his proposal, the bank would be limited to “refinancing student loans, funding affordable housing and banking cannabis.”

Both Gariepy and Conyears-Ervin point out such a proposal would require state approval. Several other cities and states are considering the creation of public banks, and it is part of mayoral candidate Amara Enyia’s platform.

Conyears-Ervin said she supports pursuing a public bank, she said her first step would be to discuss it with state Treasurer Michael Frerichs’ office “to make certain it is a benefit and not a financial burden to taxpayers.”

The cost to capitalize such a bank, which Gariepy pegs between $3 billion and $4 billion, could put taxpayers’ priorities at risk and invite corruption.

“As the city’s finances become more and more strained, I think the propensity for wrongdoing increases exponentially, and there’s a very good reason why no one else has created them,” Gariepy said. “If you find the money to create it, you find the political will in Springfield, you now have a bank whose deposits are solely guaranteed by the tax revenue of Chicago, and it’s run by elected officials, so you would have political appointees deciding the risk appetite for that bank. Who’s going to get loans? Who’s not going to get loans?” he asked.

Pawar waved off Gariepy’s concerns, and said the bank would be governed by a non-political board. He noted Gariepy worked as an accountant on Pawar’s gubernatorial campaign.

“He sounds like a cynical incumbent fending off upstarts who are trying to go big on public policy…  it’s odd for a newcomer to politics to stake out that position,” Pawar said. “We have to go big on some of these issues. I’m not running to be a bookkeeper.”

Financial missteps spurred by activism will cost taxpayers in the long run, Gariepy said, noting repeatedly that the city’s pension bill is set to jump 31 percent in 2020, and officials have yet to propose a way to cover that expense.

“If you make bad investments, if you purchase bad debt, if you do things that are aligned with political goals rather than financial goals that also are in accordance with our principles, you’re putting the taxpayers on the hook,” Gariepy said. “So that’s why it’s important that this office, to the greatest extent possible, is not being used as some political stepping stone, because major damage can be done to the affordability and the solvency of the city.”

Pawar said using the treasurer’s office to achieve policy goals will be his highest priority.

He said it’s been difficult to offer bold proposals while corruption swirls around City Hall, eroding public trust. But he suggested the office can do much bigger things, including partnering with other municipalities to weaponize portfolios for social good.

“Imagine if the treasurer organized with the state treasurer, organized with other cities and said, you know, there’s a big opiate crisis,” Pawar said. “We are going to go after big pharma and we’re going to short you. We’re going to short your stocks. Or we’re going to divest from you, or we’re going to divest with funds that have major investments in big pharma unless of course you do something about the opiate crisis.”

Summers warned in a recent City Club speech that if city leaders set up a public bank, they will also have to be prepared to foreclose on homes or put a lien on a student’s assets.

Gariepy, a Detroit-area native, received his accounting and taxation degrees from Fordham University and a civil engineering degree from Northwestern. He worked at Amtrak on planning and real estate, and now works at BKD LLP, a national CPA and advisory firm.

Gariepy complimented Summers’ work as well as his predecessor, Stephanie Neely, saying he’d be in favor of “tightening screws rather than burning down, rebuilding the house.”

The treasurer’s office should adopt environmental social governance standards and take advantage of newly designated federal opportunity zones to promote development in under-invested neighborhoods, Gariepy said, adding that he wanted to explore replicating New York City’s AFL-CIO housing investment trust, which has used union labor to build approximately to 35,000 affordable units.

Conyears-Ervin earned a master’s in business administration from Roosevelt University and a bachelor’s degree in finance from Eastern Illinois University. Conyears-Ervin worked for close to 15 years as a manager for Allstate Insurance’s claims customer experience and catastrophe teams.

“CPAs, they tell you the story of what happened, finance folks make things happen,” Conyears-Ervin said.

Under her control, she said the treasurer’s office would perform analyses of the city’s pension funds, Chicago Public Schools and the city’s sister agencies.

Approximately half of the members of the Chicago City Council have endorsed Conyears-Ervin. She said she will operate independently of her husband, the current vice chair of City Council’s Budget Committee.

“Anyone that knows me know that I am independent,” Conyears-Ervin said. “I am an independent thinker. I was a leader before I met my husband. He was a leader before he met me.”

The Chicago treasurer has been held by an African American since 1999, when former Treasurer Miriam Santos resigned in disgrace as part of a corruption scandal.

Conyears-Ervin’s campaign has emphasized that she will be the first West Side resident to be treasurer.

Pawar, the first Asian American elected to City Council, has represented a ward that is about 90 percent white for eight years after defeating former Ald. Eugene Schulter’s hand-picked replacement, who had the backing of the Chicago machine.

“I don’t look at it as change,” Pawar said. I don’t see that not having a black treasurer and having an Indian treasurer is change.”

“It’s enormously important that those who serve Chicago in elected office look like the population of Chicago. Our current mayoral field is extremely diverse, City Clerk [Anna] Valencia is currently unopposed, and I think there’s a very high likelihood that the next mayor of Chicago is a woman of color. And so times are changing,” Gariepy said.

All minority representation is good, Pawar said.

“I don’t like the crabs in the barrel mentality, we end up hurting one another… if we allow that narrative to persist.”

Update: This post was updated on Feb. 7, 2019 to reflect that Gariepy currently works at BKD LLP, a national CPA and advisory firm, and not Vora Certified Public Accountants.