Two Republicans seek the office of Arkansas treasurer, one who touts his fiscal conservatism and says he would reduce the size of the office and another who says he has the integrity and financial skill set for the job.
State Rep. Mark Lowery and state Sen. Mat Pitsch will face off in the GOP primary May 24 to determine who will oppose Democrat Pam Whitaker in November's general election. Early voting in the primary begins Monday.
Arkansas' treasurer, one of seven constitutional offices, serves as the state's banker and manages an investment portfolio of about $6 billion. Incumbent state Treasurer Dennis Milligan is term-limited.
Pitsch, a 58-year-old engineer and small-business owner, is originally from Wyoming and earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in electrical engineering management from the University of Missouri, Rolla. He is executive director of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, an entity responsible for planning and developing regional transportation initiatives. He lives in Fort Smith and is married with four children and six grandchildren.
Pitsch said the treasurer's role combines his knack for numbers with his management skills.
"Ronald Reagan once said, 'If you want to fix America, elect an entire Congress of engineers,'" he said.
He said the state should be "playing offense" with its investment strategy amid extraordinary economic conditions.
Lowery, 65, is a native of Central Arkansas who graduated from Sylvan Hills High School and earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in communication from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
He is an adjunct college instructor who has taught at Henderson State University and the University of Central Arkansas. He has also served as executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, chief of staff for former Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee in the mid-1990s and as editor of the Maumelle Monitor and the Sherwood Voice. He lives in Maumelle and has two children and two grandchildren.
Lowery launched a campaign for secretary of state in July 2021, then pivoted to the treasurer's race in January.
He said in an interview last week that he originally got in the secretary of state's race because he was involved in and energized about election issues, but switched to the treasurer's race because of his work with the NAIFA and "well-founded knowledge of financial issues," as well as his four years as chair of the House Insurance and Commerce Committee. He previously cited the difficulty of challenging an incumbent; he was one of two Republican candidates doing so in the secretary of state's race.
Lowery said he has the skills to grasp the many disparate issues that the treasurer's office deals with.
"I feel like I've got a lot to offer the people of Arkansas," he said.
Lowery said he would use the office as a bully pulpit to advocate for fiscal conservatism and promote the Arkansas 529 Education Savings Plan by making sure people are aware of everything the money can be used for.
If elected, Lowery said he would ask for a 15% decrease in the number of employees in the treasurer's office and said he believes each constitutional office should take the same position to shrink the size of state government.
"Government's got to start somewhere," he said.
He said there is no need for the office to have two deputy treasurers, nor its own legal counsel when it can rely on the attorney general.
Pitsch said he would need to get in and learn the office to know whether he would adjust the size of the staff, but he would focus on continuous improvement and finding places where the office can be more efficient.
Both said it was possible that at least some of Milligan's staff would follow him to the auditor's office if he is elected.
Other than that, Pitsch said he doesn't expect to initiate a lot of turnover if elected and praised the current administration's staff.
"Everybody gets an interview, but I'd be a fool to go in there and do carte blanche, upset change, et cetera, because it's functioning," he said.
Lowery said he would bring in new people but said it wouldn't be ethical to name names before the election.
The election of a new treasurer comes nearly a decade after a former state treasurer, Democrat Martha Shoffner, resigned from the office after she was caught on camera accepting bribes from a bond broker. Shoffner was later convicted on 14 extortion and bribery charges.
Asked about how he would avoid corruption in the office if elected, Pitsch said he would maintain a cross-trained team.
"If you're the only person that knows how to do your job and I as a leader haven't trained at least one and a half other people to do your job, it's pretty easy, especially with massive amounts of money that go through that office, for some of it to get in trouble," he said.
Lowery said the main way to guard against corruption is by keeping the state Board of Finance educated and by having citizens on the board who can ask the tough questions.
"Arkansans can trust just by looking at my legislative record that I ask the tough questions," he said.
Both candidates said they would attend the retirement system board meetings and be an active part of the board.
Pitsch touts endorsements from Republicans Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Milligan, as well as from more than 50 current and former Arkansas legislators. He is also endorsed by the Arkansas chapter of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, where Lowery worked for about eight years.
Milligan, the GOP nominee for state auditor and the former state Republican party chair, said Lowery's personal financial history would raise questions about public trust in the office, in a news conference announcing his endorsement last week.
Lowery has filed for personal bankruptcy twice, once in 1998 and again in 2017, federal court records show. He is in the process of resolving about $68,000 worth of debts, according to a payment plan adopted in 2019.
While Lowery has said his financial struggles make him a better candidate because he can relate to constituents who have gone through the same difficulties, Pitsch said the history doesn't bode well for his ability to do the job.
Pitsch's campaign announced the NAIFA endorsement in March.
"We need a leader with high moral character, strong integrity, and tried and true work ethic to keep the state in the best position financially for this generation and the next," a letter signed by chapter president Allan Hudson reads.
Lowery said the organization had pledged to endorse Pitsch last summer, before he entered the race, though Howard Woodall, vice president of advocacy for the organization, said Friday that was untrue.
Lowery is endorsed by anti-abortion organization Arkansas Right to Life and said his answers on the Arkansas Family Council's candidate questionnaire show him to be more conservative. He said while those issues are not relevant to the office, they're relevant to conservatism.
"I think right now when we're looking at hoping to get the nomination of the Republican Party and of conservatives, they need to know whether they have a true conservative from top to bottom, whether it's fiscal issues or social issues in that office," he said.
He added that he believes Pitsch is "woefully inadequate" as a fiscal conservative, citing the conservative Conduit for Action group's assertion that Pitsch has voted against the GOP platform. He has also described Pitsch's endorsers as establishment politicians.
Asked about Lowery saying he is the true fiscal conservative in the race, Pitsch pointed to his endorsements by legislators.
"You don't need to believe a word I say or a word my opponent says," Pitsch said. "You need to look at people that have worked with both of us."
In March, Milligan's office announced that he had pulled about $125 million out of money market accounts managed by New York-based investment management company BlackRock. A spokeswoman cited the firm's global political activity of "handpicking" companies aligned with their beliefs on environmental, social and governance practices, which she said the office feels most Arkansans are opposed to.
West Virginia's Republican treasurer took a similar tack earlier this year, announcing that the state's Board of Treasury Investments would no longer use the company's investment fund as part of its banking transactions, and that state, along with Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, has introduced a bill to punish fossil fuel divestment and carbon-neutral goals. The firm's CEO, Larry Fink, wrote a letter last year advising companies to prepare for a zero-carbon world.
Lowery praised the current Arkansas treasurer's move in March and pledged to continue that disinvestment if elected in a tweet in March. He said some of the companies BlackRock invests in do business with the Chinese Communist Party and prioritize "politically correct" standards rather than return on investment.
"I don't think investment strategy should be based on a litany of woke metrics," he said.
Pitsch also said he agreed with Milligan's divestment and that the state shouldn't be investing with countries that don't have Americans' best interests.
"The simple answer is no, invest the dollars in Arkansas and if not Arkansas, then the United States," he said.
Lowery has taken aim at Pitsch's role as executive director of the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, saying the fact that a yearslong project to develop an intermodal river port that has not yet come to fruition is evidence that Pitsch is "padding his pockets" with public money.
"That is not the kind of person you want to put in charge of the state of Arkansas' finances," Lowery said. "Now they want to accuse me of personal financial issues where I've had to reorganize my debt. But I think it is really important when you're talking about what a candidate does with taxpayer dollars."
He has likened Pitsch to former state Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, who was convicted of federal wire fraud and money laundering from his partnership with the city of Fort Smith in the now-defunct River Valley Sports Complex project. He said electing Pitsch would open the office up for more "Martha Shoffner-like shenanigans."
On his role with the Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority, Pitsch said his job isn't solely to build a port, it's to develop transportation infrastructure, and the authority has built almost $2 billion worth of highways, airports and other infrastructure that has created jobs and a culture of economic development.
"We're trying to build the port, but that's taken a long time to get that construction and it's almost there," he said. "My board of directors is ecstatic that they've spent as little as they've spent to get $2 billion worth of infrastructure. Building a port is not our role, building transportation is our role, and we have built a bunch of it."
Pitsch also has dismissed Lowery's comment comparing him to Shoffner as "ridiculous mudslinging."
Pitsch has outraised Lowery, reporting $100,125 in total contributions as of March 31, though Lowery, who reported raising a cumulative total of $16,600, has more cash on hand thanks to carryover from his secretary of state bid and his 2020 campaign for state House. Lowery reported a balance of $54,209.46 at the end of March; Pitsch reported having $30,331.50 on hand. Pitsch also has outspent Lowery, putting $71,819.65 toward the race while Lowery has spent $12,679.86 in total.
Though Pitsch leads in fundraising, a statewide poll of more than 800 GOP primary voters conducted by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College on May 2 with a 4.3-percentage-point margin of error put Lowery ahead with 30% of the vote while Pitsch came away with 12%. Still, a large bloc -- 58% -- remains undecided in the down-ballot race.
Republican candidates for state treasurer
Occupation: Adjunct college instructor
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Public service experience: Arkansas House of Representatives, 2013-present; Southern Regional Education Board member
Residence: Fort Smith
Occupation: Engineer, small business owner
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering management from the University of Missouri, Rolla
Public service experience: Arkansas House of Representatives, 2015-18; Arkansas Senate, 2019-present