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The next Washington state treasurer will be a Republican, but what kind?

Republican candidates for Washington State Treasurer Duane Davidson and Michael Waite.
KUOW Photo/Deb Wang
Republican candidates for Washington State Treasurer Duane Davidson and Michael Waite.

Washington's treasurer is like the state’s banker. The office managed more than $408 billion in cash last year. 

And the two candidates for that office have very different ideas about what to do with all that money, and the office itself.

One thing is certain: The next treasurer will be a Republican. In the primary, Republicans Duane Davidson and Michael Waite emerged as the top two vote-getters. (Incumbent Democrat Jim McIntire is retiring after serving two terms in office.)

Davidson takes a conservative approach to the treasurer’s office. He believes the most important role for the treasurer is to be a careful steward of the state’s money.

“The treasurer just watches the money, monitors the cash flow, does the state’s investments and maintains the state's debt,” he said. “Not glamorous type of stuff — but very, very essential that someone does that in a diligent manner. And, I believe, trying to stay removed from politics as much as possible.”

Waite argues the treasurer should be more activist and more innovative. On the stump, he talks about pushing for better deals from banks and cutting fees to outside money managers.

“We have over $100 billion in pension investments and we spent over $333 million in external consultants last year, and that kind of spending of tax dollars isn’t great. We need to do better,” he said.

A contrast in style

Davidson, 57, has three grown children and has been in the public sector for most of his adult life. He’s currently serving his fourth term as treasurer of Benton County in Eastern Washington, population 190,000. He’s proud of his government experience.

“I chose this way of life. I think I have given back to my community in a very, very positive way and I think that’s why voters have returned me to office,” he said.

Davidson almost dropped out of the race earlier in the campaign. His wife died in May, but he said his three children encouraged him to carry on because that’s what his wife would have wanted.

Michael Waite, 39, has two young children and lives in Seattle. Waite came to the U.S. from Australia in the 1990s on the professional tennis circuit.

He has spent his career working in private firms, including Cascade Investments, which manages Bill Gates money. He scoffs at Davidson’s experience as a county-level administrator.  

“I actually bring the right experience,” he said. “No one has ever held this job coming from private industry with experience dealing in the billions of dollars coming in. My opponent has just millions of dollars of experience, very small scale local county finance.”

Waite is a newcomer to politics. He has not been active in the Republican party, and he only voted for the first time last year, when he became a U.S. citizen.

Although he is running as a Republican, Waite said he considered running as an independent, but decided he couldn’t raise enough money that way.

Waite also says as treasurer, he would be more involved in the lawmaking process; for example, advising legislators on how to lower the state’s debt.

“Maybe there is not always the need to borrow, and when there is the need to borrow we do it as little as possible and as efficiently as possible,” he said.

But Davidson said the role of the treasurer is not to legislate. He said he would focus on collaboration in Olympia.

In his four terms as Benton County Treasurer, he said, “I have just learned how to deal with other elected officials, trying to work in as bipartisan a fashion. I’m very comfortable trying to strike the deal that works, trying to find that middle ground that will make everybody happy.”

Davidson says he would make the treasurer’s office more transparent so that taxpayers and lawmakers can better understand the state’s finances.

Both men personally oppose a state income tax. That’s something the current treasurer has been advocating.

The two men differ in their views of this year’s presidential campaign. Waite said he will not vote for Donald Trump, but Davidson said he will not weigh in on the race.

Year started with KUOW: 2005