Race to watch: Contested primary race for Pa. treasurer

Republican incumbent Stacy Garrity does not have a primary challenger. Democratic candidates Ryan Bizzarro and Erin McClelland are facing off to be the sole nominee.

The state Capitol building

File photo: Pa.’s state Capitol in Harrisburg. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Pennsylvania Treasury Department is the steward of more than $150 billion in state assets. Responsible for overseeing the purse and administering programs designed to give Pennsylvanians a financial boost, the treasurer, in some form, has been a fixture in state government as early as 1704.

Enshrined in the state’s original constitution, the treasurer began as an appointed official role before it evolved into an elected office in 1872. Today, the state Treasury Department employs more than 300 people.

A handful of row offices are up for election in 2024 — attorney general, auditor general and treasurer. In the race for treasurer, three candidates will be on the ballot for Pennsylvania’s primary election.

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Incumbent Republican Treasurer Stacy Garrity was first elected in 2020 and sworn into office in 2021. Garrity broke a lengthy streak of Democratic dominance over the state Treasury Department. She will look to defend her seat without a primary challenger from her own party. Meanwhile, Democrats are fielding two candidates to seize back control of the office: state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro of Erie County and substance abuse counselor Erin McClelland.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against Garrity — and a potential Forward Party candidate Chris Foster, if he can make it on the ballot in November.

Incumbent Republican Stacy Garrity

Stacy Garrity
Republican Treasurer Stacy Garrity. (Courtesy candidate Facebook page)

Garrity, the 78th treasurer of Pennsylvania, was the first Republican to hold the position in 16 years. Since taking office, she has revamped the PA 529 college savings program, tossing out the minimum dollar requirement to open an account. Garrity has touted the growth of the PA ABLE program, a savings initiative for people with disabilities.

One of the biggest buoys to Garrity’s re-election bid is Pennsylvania’s unclaimed property system, which underwent a makeover during her tenure. Her office has announced the return of nearly $274 million worth of unclaimed property in 2023, a number her opponents have blasted as “deliberately inflated.” As a veteran herself, Garrity has championed for returning to veterans military decorations stored within the treasury’s vault.

In an act of bipartisanship, Garrity joined forces with former Democratic Treasurer Joe Torsella, accusing a massive state pension fund of suppressing information.

Her tenure is not without controversy.

Garrity’s opponents have condemned her for undermining the 2020 presidential election and participating in a Harrisburg election denial rally on Jan. 5, 2021 — one day before the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In addition to election denialism, her investment of an additional $20 million in Israel Bonds amid the Israel-Hamas War and a growing Palestinian civilian death toll, have garnered protest and criticism.

Garrity has been an outspoken critic of President Joe Biden and his administration, demanding he withdraw his nominee to become the federal government’s top banking supervisor. She also criticized the Biden administration for pressuring financial institutions into divesting from coal, oil and natural gas companies, co-signing a letter sent to then-special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry.

Prior to becoming treasurer, the Athens, Pennsylvania native served as a colonel in the Army Reserve. Garrity earned the nickname “the Angel of the Desert” during Operation Iraqi Freedom and received acclaim for her treatment of Iraqi prisoners in a U.S.-run detention camp. The Bloomsburg University alumna also worked at Global Tungsten & Powders Corp., where she eventually became a vice president.

Garrity’s re-election campaign is focused on establishing a tax-deductible 401k-style retirement savings program for uncovered Pennsylvanians, pushing for legislation to grant her the power to automatically return unclaimed property to its rightful owners and expanding PA ABLE.

The Pennsylvania Republican Party has endorsed her.

Democratic candidate Ryan Bizzarro

Ryan Bizzarro headshot
Democratic treasurer candidate Ryan Bizzarro. (Courtesy candidate Facebook page)

Bizzarro has served in the state House of Representatives since 2013. He is the chairperson of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee and a member of the Rules Committee.

He’s previously held assignments on the Consumer Affairs Committee, House Judiciary Committee, Insurance Committee and House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee.

An advocate for animal rights, Bizzarro authored changes to Pennsylvania’s animal abuse regulations, notably shepherding Libre’s Law to former Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.

In 2023, the state House unanimously passed Bizzarro’s bill designed to curtail strategic lawsuits against public participation, which are used to silence or deter critics by burdening them with the costs of a legal defense. The bill is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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In the past, Bizzarro has introduced bills that would expand paramedicine, permit same-day voter registration and allow first-time homebuyers to claim a state tax deduction for certain savings.

When Garrity was criticized for pledging a $20 million investment in Israel Bonds, Bizzarro told Spotlight PA that he would support investing in Israel Bonds — but declined to say whether he would increase or decrease the funding. In a WESA candidate survey, Bizzarro was noncommittal.

“At this point, it is not possible to determine if Garrity’s new investments are sound, or if they are a knee-jerk reaction to score cheap political points,” Bizzarro told Spotlight PA in February.

The Edinboro University graduate is a lifelong Erie County resident. He began his career in 2008 as a victim-witness coordinator for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Since then, he’s worked as a campaign director for local candidates, as a behavioral health specialist and has sat on the board of the Erie County Industrial Development Authority.

Bizzarro has the endorsement of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and has made it a priority to contrast himself with Garrity.

“As Treasurer, I’ll guard taxpayer assets, investments, and programs that impact you,” Bizzarro said on his campaign website. “I’ll protect you from Stacy Garrity’s extreme agendas.”

If elected, Bizzarro plans on creating a state contracting process review to add protections from wage theft, expand 529 enrollment and add an automatic return element to the unclaimed property system.

Bizzarro has released a separate platform document outlining his plan for unclaimed property.

Democratic candidate Erin McClelland

Erin McClelland
Democratic treasurer candidate Erin McClelland. (Courtesy candidate Facebook page)

McClelland has worked in substance abuse and mental health treatment for two decades. She started off at the Institute for Research Education & Training in Addiction, where she served as an opiate addiction consultant on the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 25 Cities Initiative.

She eventually became the executive director of Arche Wellness — the first Orthomolecular Addiction Recovery Program in Pennsylvania.

Since 2015, McClelland has also worked as a consultant within the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

As a blogger, McClelland has written a pair of posts on the concept of a public bank and an invoice-backed securities scheme.

In 2014 and 2016, the Natrona Heights resident launched unsuccessful bids for Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District. In 2022, she announced her intention to run for Allegheny County executive and later dropped out.

In February, the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported numerous mistakes on her fundraising committee reports for her treasury bid, showing she accepted and spent donations months before her campaign existed.

“I have thoroughly enjoyed starting and operating a small business and working to improve government systems, processes, and policies while advocating for our public-sector workers,” McClelland said on her website. “My experience has taught me that in any large complex adaptive system, it doesn’t matter how good our intentions are if we don’t have viable systemic answers to two fundamental questions: What problem are we trying to solve and what is the root cause of this problem? The devil lies completely in the details of the policy solutions we implement.”

Her 2024 campaign is focused on rebuilding the supply chain, while enforcing labor and environmental standards, strengthening contract oversight and ending the privatization of pensions. She has criticized Keystone Saves, a bipartisan-backed program still making its way through the legislature — calling it “Stacy Garrity’s George W. Bush Recession Starter Kit.”

“It’s time we elect a responsible, honest-broker to oversee the Commonwealth’s Treasury who is committed to rebuilding our state’s supply chain with transparency and integrity and managing our taxpayer’s coffers with diligence and accountability,” McClelland said.

She has released an eight-page campaign prospectus.

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