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Baker and Contreras aim to succeed Zweifel in the state treasurer's office

Democrats Judy Baker and Pat Contreras are each running for state treasurer.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Democrats Judy Baker and Pat Contreras are each running for state treasurer.

If you’re wondering why there’s a competitive battle for Missouri state treasurer, look no further than the innards of the Missouri Constitution.

If the Show Me State’s pre-eminent legal document didn’t restrict a state treasurer to two terms, it’s a good bet that incumbent officeholder Clint Zweifel would be running for re-election – and probably without competition from his fellow Democrats. But it does. And with Zweifel taking a hiatus of sorts from electoral politics, two Democrats – former state Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, and Kansas City native Pat Contreras – are seeking to capture the weighty, but slightly low profile, statewide office.

While not drawing as much attention as, say, governor or attorney general, the state treasurer’s office does perform a number of important functions for the state. That includes maintaining the state’s college savings plan; investing state funds; and voting on low-income housing projects. It’s also in the past served as a stepping-stone for higher offices.

'Principled, experienced leadership'

Contreras and Baker possess generally similar philosophies for how they’d run the treasurer’s office. Both candidates want to aggressively promote Missouri’s college savings program; use the office’s bully pulpit to showcase financial literacy; and prompting initiatives that protect consumers.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two contenders could come down to style and experience.

Contreras, a Kansas City native, has never run for office before. The Saint Louis University and Columbia University graduate worked at the State Department. He did two tours in Pakistan, as well as one stint in Mexico aimed at overhauling that country’s judiciary. He later worked for several federal departments in Washington, D.C.

“I loved it,” said Contreras of his State Department experience. “I wanted to be able to get outside and see how other societies and other countries live and really be able to bring that learning back. So my whole intention was to leave Missouri and serve our country and come back.”

Contreras began to seriously think about running for state treasurer at the end of 2014. After having “a number of conversations with political friends all across the state,” he decided that running for state treasurer would be “a good fit.” His campaign has spent a great deal of energy through social media focusing on the “millennial” vote, which is loosely defined as a group of people that entered adulthood in the early 2000s.

He’s also taken several public swipes at presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, adding it would be a stinging rebuke to the businessman-turned-politician if Missouri elected its first Hispanic statewide officeholder.

“This is the Show Me State,” Contreras said. “And what he has shown us is he’s a liar, a bigot and a racist. And I am standing for the majority of Missourians who want experience, principled leadership. And that’s what I stand for.”

Comeback trail

Unlike Contreras, this is not the first time Baker has run for public office.

Baker first won election to the Missouri House in 2004 and quickly immersed herself in health-care  matters. This wasn’t a new policy arena for Baker, who has a master’s degree in health administration from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She worked for a number of years within the health-care industry, including several high-level positions at University of Missouri Health Care.

Even though she could have easily served two more terms in the Missouri House, she decided to forgo re-election in 2008 to run for Congress against then-U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof. Baker initially considered entering that race when Hulshof was still running for re-election. But things changed dramatically when then-Gov. Matt Blunt decided against running for another term.

After Hulshof jumped into a GOP gubernatorial primary, the battle for Missouri’s now-defunct 9th Congressional District became one of the hottest federal contests in the country.She ultimately lost to Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer by a narrow margin.But she said the experience taught her a lot about running a high-level campaign.

“I shook so many hands and went to so many places where I think Democrats don’t normally go. We did very well in that rural area – much better than anyone expected us to,” Baker said. “I think losing is the best thing that ever happened to me. First of all, I learned how great people are and how much they will get involved. I called people who had no idea who I was that said, ‘We’re going to help you.’”

After 2008, Baker served as a regional director for the Department of Health and Human Services and, in 2012, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. She decided to re-enter electoral politics last year, adding that the treasurer’s office was the “best fit of office for me.” She points to how the office gives her a chance to speak for Missourians who are economically struggling.

“I’ve always wanted to do something about poverty,” said Baker, noting that she started a bipartisan caucus in the Missouri House to deal with poverty. “Of course, we have a growing poverty problem in Missouri under the current leadership that has been going on. We have stagnant incomes. We have people who don’t have even $400 … to fall back on as a cushion if they have a health-care event or if they lose a job.”

Low-wattage campaign

Especially compared to some other statewide primaries, the Democratic race for treasurer has been reasonably tranquil. The two candidates have generally avoided attacking each other and have about the same amount of campaign money in the bank.

But Baker and Contreras have put forth differing ideas. Baker, for instance, wants to start a savings account program for Missouri’s prisoners. Friends and family could contribute to this account, which could be used to pay off lingering court costs. 

“The average inmate comes out of incarceration with about a $2,500 debt,” Baker said. “Usually they’re court fees or lawyer fees. … And they’re hopefully transitioning to a re-entry program back into their community, but it’s hard to get a job. It’s hard to pay off those fees so you start off in a negative environment.”

One of the state treasurer's jobs is to vote on projects that come through the Missouri Housing Development Commission, which ultimately approves low-income housing tax credits. He said that entity has "a lot of red tape and a lot of politics" that he wants to dispense with if he becomes treasurer.

"What [developers] want to do most is break ground and offer affordable housing that need it the most," he said. "I want to make sure that MHDC is less political and more merit based. I want to make sure we are providing families with the housing they need, so we can worry about making their lives better instead of worrying where they're going to sleep at night." 

Sen. Eric Schmitt
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
The winner of the Democratic primary will face state Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Glendale Republican with a big cash advantage.

Before Zweifel, most state treasurers ran for governor or the U.S. Senate – with various degrees of success. Most recently, Bob Holden made the transition from treasurer to governor.

But for that to even be a consideration, the winner of the Baker-Contreras showdown will have to face state Sen. Eric Schmitt. The Glendale Republican was headed for a tough GOP primary against state Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla. But that battle fizzled after Brown dropped out of the race and left Schmitt running for treasurer without opposition.

With more than $2 million cash on hand, Schmitt will likely have vastly more money to spend after Aug. 2 than either Baker or Contreras.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.