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You figure that a tax maven in the state lege will come across as such a policy wonk that you’d be yawning after the first paragraph. Nope. I talked to Clint Zweifel, state rep from district 78 in North St. Louis County, after he’d gotten out of his last committee meeting of the day. It was 6:30, he was in his car going home, and the words–the ideas–came tumbling out of him as if he were on a coffee high.

He’s a man who wants to be the state treasurer because “politics at its heart better be about ideas.”

What ideas? I mean, you know that the state treasurer is supposed to manage our cash flow and investments, right? Any green eye shade type should be able to do it. Wrong, according to Zweifel. “That’s a minimum level of performance.”

Once that minimum level of competency is met, he feels that the treasurer should speak forcefully on issues that will financially affect the state and its citizens. For example:

“When the assets were sold on MOHELA, I think that would have been a really good opportunity for a treasurer to stand up and say, ‘Hey, let’s stop for a moment, let’s take a look at what this means for future student borrowers; let’s conduct independent actuarial analysis; and let’s tell the story of how this might affect students before we start raiding the fund so that we can building some buildings.'”

 

Zweifel points out that MOHELA has lost money for the first time in its 27 year history and their basic mission of providing affordable loans is in jeopardy. The treasurer could have stood up instead of standing by.

Health care is another such issue. We have two philosophies about health care in this state, but when all those Medicaid cuts were proposed, “the treasurer was in a position to tell the story of what the impact is when you suck $600 million of health care spending out of our economy.”

And then there’s the way Missouri sat idly by, he says, while the mortgage crisis developed in this state.

“We have a system of originating mortgages where, frankly, there’s not one consumer protection built in. They’re not licensed, these brokers aren’t. There’s no incentive in the process for people to have good behavior. If you’re a watchdog for tax dollars, you also need to be a watchdog for consumers.

“It’s easy for somebody who is in the ivory tower to say, well, you know these downturns happen and it’s just a correction, and things’ll work their way out. But you’re talking about real people.”

Notice that all the issues Zweifel raises, beyond being economic issues, are also emotional, human issues. To him, being the treasurer is more than bookkeeping and investing. A treasurer needs to care about the connection between people’s pocketbook worries, legislative policies, and the state’s money.

So, yes, Zweifel has an M.B.A. and sits on three legislative committees that deal with finance, but there’s much more to his legislative record. He has led on policy development for the caucus for the last two and half years and feels that the caucus is light years ahead of where it was in the past. Dems have been putting together “legitimate policy proposals so that when it’s time for us to govern, we’re going to be ready to go.”

In the last three years, he himself has developed the caucus’s proposals for early childhood education and college affordability. He led the debate on the sale of MOHELA and spearheaded discussion about creative ideas to get the best teachers and the best classrooms.

Considering those caucus plans, you’d surely call Clint an idealist, but he’s not a naif. Not only has he faced a Republican House for the last five plus years, he also faced long odds just to get there–in 2002, the year Dems lost the House. He ran a disciplined campaign that focused on the emotional connection to voters on kitchen table issues.

And what he means by “disciplined” is that for seven straight months, he knocked on eighty doors a day, personally knocking on 14,000 doors. No other Democrat toppled an incumbent Republican that year, but Clint won by 67 votes out of 13,000 votes cast. He points out that having a history of beating Republicans should matter when Democrats pick their candidate this year.

Missourians could do a lot worse than get a treasurer who not only manages state funds competently but who also speaks out when the big financial issues are about to hit ordinary people’s fans.