HARRISBURG -- A longtime Washington County commissioner is fighting an uphill election battle to unseat Democratic state Treasurer Rob McCord, who she says failed to present a remedy for Pennsylvania's financial woes.
Republican Diana Irey Vaughan, who has served as a county commissioner since 1995, trails Mr. McCord narrowly in the limited public opinion polling on the contest, with about a third of state voters undecided.
Recent campaign finance reports show a significant financial advantage for the Democratic incumbent, who likely also will be aided by having President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket to boost party turnout.
Also vying to lead the office tasked with managing state investments is Libertarian Patricia Fryman of Venango County.
The office of state treasurer has been held overwhelmingly by Democrats over the past 50 years, including Bob Casey Jr. before his election to the U.S. Senate.
In addition to serving as commissioner, Ms. Irey Vaughan, 50, made an unsuccessful 2006 bid to unseat the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown. The treasurer's race is her first statewide contest.
At a recent Republican Party gathering near Harrisburg, Ms. Irey Vaughan energetically told activists that grass-roots efforts would help her topple Mr. McCord, and she downplayed the disadvantage of having $22,000 on hand to his $2 million.
Getting even the party faithful excited about the race for treasurer can be difficult -- Mr. McCord at a similar partisan event referred to it as "the most important office in Pennsylvania that no one knows about" -- but Ms. Irey Vaughan said both the state pension crisis and mounting debt costs are "huge" issues.
She slammed Mr. McCord for not taking sufficient action on either problem. As a member of the county pension board, Ms. Irey Vaughan said she helped oversee an unusually healthy retirement fund. She described the current treasurer as remaining too quiet on pension reform.
She said her proposal will be unveiled soon for finding the $37 billion and counting that is owed in promised pension payments for teachers and state employees.
Ms. Irey Vaughan also faulted Mr. McCord for signing off on a $650 million bond issue in late 2010. Mr. McCord had balked at the higher initial request of $1 billion.
Ms. Irey Vaughan said closer scrutiny should have been given to how those dollars would be spent.
"There are a lot of basic questions that it seems people haven't been asking," she said of capital borrowing. "Is it good debt? Bad debt? What is it paying for?"
Mr. McCord, 53, defended his decision regarding the debt issuance and his public comments about pension reform.
On the bond issuance, he said the smaller final amount allowed state government to borrow what was needed for projects in the pipeline and take advantage of an expiring federal bond program.
"Debt isn't always bad, you just have to be getting a higher yield than your cost," he said, noting that the treasurer doesn't have a say over how those borrowed dollars are then spent.
As for pensions, Mr. McCord said he has "been beating the drum" to widen the conversation beyond just the public pension crisis, raising concerns about problems stemming from private retirement accounts as well.
Mr. McCord added that he has been having private conversations with the Corbett administration and legislators about crafting a new approach to the state's unfunded pension costs.
"The real leadership here will involve getting people to the table and doing uncomfortable things," he said. "If they're not doing something uncomfortable, they haven't really passed pension reform."
Reflecting on his four years in office, Mr. McCord touts administrative overhauls that he says have cut down on processing time for state payments and have returned more than $400 million to state coffers during his tenure.
Before taking office in 2009, the Montgomery County resident was a venture capitalist and led a technology trade association. His strong fundraising figures include almost $450,000 in personal loans to his current and past campaign efforts.
Mr. McCord's name also has come up repeatedly as a rumored challenger to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, whose four-year term expires in 2014. Asked about the chances that he may seek higher office shortly after his potential re-election, he replied that he's focused on the race at hand.
"I'm flattered and I take it as a good market signal that we're doing a good job at Treasury," Mr. McCord said.
Laura Olson: email@example.com or 717-787-4254. First Published October 8, 2012 4:00 AM