Shawn Wooden, at left in photo, woos party delegates at a forum this month in New Haven. (Thomas Breen Photo)
Shawn Wooden wants you to know he has worked in government — even though he’s running for government office.
Other candidates from both major parties are seeking state office this year boasting of their lack of government experience, seeking to capitalize on anti-Hartford sentiment.
Wooden, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for state treasurer, argues that we need people in government who have worked in government.
“Government is not a business,” Wooden said in an interview on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
He said he disagrees with “people who say Connecticut needs a CEO or money manager” as treasurer. “We don’t need a CFO. We don’t need someone who has focused his life on being a bean counter. ... This job is about people.”
The state treasurer manages $34 billion in pension fund investments and $20 billion in bonded debt. Wooden faces three opponents — Arunan Arulampalam, Dita Bhargava, and John Blankley — for the Democratic nomination. The current treasurer Denise Nappier, is retiring after holding the position for 20 years.
At a recent candidates forum in New Haven, Blankley argued that he is the most qualified treasurer candidate in Connecticut history based on his private-sector experience, as chief financial officer for BP North America, Stolt Tankers and Terminals, and Harris Chemicals.
A treasurer does need bean counters, does need investment experts and people experienced in managing public pensions, on the staff, Wooden argued in the WNHH interview. But the treasurer position also requires experience in dealing with government decision makers, because of the way, for instance, the treasurer needs to convince lawmakers to invest more in pensions. Government work, unlike in a private business, requires building coalitions and meeting not just financial objectives, but public-policy objectives as well, he argued. A private-sector CEO can just “push a button” and “tell people, ‘You need to do this.’”
“If you haven’t worked with a public pension system before,” Wooden argued, “you wouldn’t understand the public policy concerns.”
Wooden has experience working with public pensions in several capacities. He heads the public pension division of the Day Pitney law firm, in which capacity he has worked with government pension plans in numerous states, including Connecticut. And as president of the Hartford City Council for four years, he said, he focused on shoring up that city’s government employees pension funds. Those funds are now 74 percent funded, he said, in line with the recommendations of actuaries and bond ratings agencies.
Connecticut’s $34 billion pension funds are in precarious shape, thanks to decades of underfunding and overly optimistic projections on returns. The teachers retirement fund is about 53 percent funded, for instance.
“These are unsustainable numbers,” Wooden argued. Underfunded pensions jeopardize government’s bond ratings, and ultimately pose the danger of not being able to pay out benefits.
If elected, Wooden said, he would advocate for state budgets to include greater annual payments into the pension funds; and finding new revenue streams into state pension funds and increasing the asset base, perhaps by securitizing other state assets like government-owned office buildings. He sounded a cautionary note on borrowing to shore up the funds.
Wooden also called for divesting state funds from “irresponsible gun manufacturers” who oppose universal background checks or bans on bump stocks. ““Guns are inherently dangerous. They’re not inherently bad,” he said. “You shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines to make money.”
Wooden has pushed for socially responsible investing since his days protesting for South African apartheid divestment as a student at Trinity College in the 1980s. (He also hosted a weekly “Hip Hop Nation” radio program on the Trinity radio station, using the DJ handle “Matrix..”) He said he rejects the notion that companies must choose between making money and “doing good.” He said he also recognizes that “you have to make a return on investment” and choose thoughtfully which issues to press as an investor. After Sandy Hook and other school massacres, and in light of gun violence in Connecticut cities, the gun issue has “risen to the top,” he said.
By Paul Bass
April 30, 2018