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The Treasurer-Turned-Politician: Utah's David Damschen

  • By Ira Apfel
  • Published: 3/28/2017

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While most Americans focused on the Presidential election this past November, AFP member David Damschen, CTP, had his own campaign to run. And, on November 8, he was elected State Treasurer of Utah with 61 percent of the vote.

As State Treasurer, Damschen is responsible for the treasury and cash management functions of the state, investment of public funds including the $11 billion Public Treasurers’ Investment Fund. Prior to joining the treasurers’ office in 2009, he was the Senior Vice President and Director of Treasury Management Services at a bank. He is the past president of Association for Financial Professionals of Utah. In his personal time, he volunteers as a member of the Mountain Ski Patrol, in Utah.

Despite his busy schedule, Damschen recently found time to speak to the AFP Conversations podcast.

AFP: The higher you rise in your career, particularly for someone like you who is the treasurer of an entire state, the less your technical skills matter. You’re not pulling payroll for Utah. Someone else does that for you. You really have to lead, delegate, and that involves communication and the soft skills.

David Damschen: I think that’s true. I also think it’s important, though, for a treasury practitioner to always keep that finger on the pulse. While the importance of delegation grows over time in one’s career, I think that you don’t want to evolve into an over-reliance on folks for certain things. I try to keep the blade sharp a little bit, and keep myself tuned into critical things.

AFP: How do you keep yourself sharp? You can’t do it every day, you have to delegate some, but you also don’t want that blade to get dull, to use your metaphor.

Damschen: You have to pick and choose a little bit where you engage right because time’s at a premium. One of the things that forces this upon me as Utah State Treasurer, I serve on 19 boards and commissions by statute. Let’s take investments, for instance. I chair the School Institutional Trust Fund Board of Trusties. We oversee the investment of a $2 billion, long-time horizon, multi-asset class portfolio. I’m also on the board of The Utah Retirement Systems. That’s a $27 billion system, roughly. That helps a lot, because I can’t serve effectively on those boards, or lead effectively on those boards if I’m not keeping up with what’s happening there, and those are microcosms of what’s happening globally. If you talk about public pensions and some of the challenges that are going on there, things are much better in Utah than in other states, but we’re faced with the same issues and the same challenges. We’re managing through those challenges a little bit differently.

I’m also on the debt management capital and infrastructure side. I’m on the State Bonding Commission and my office is responsible for debt issuance for the state, when we issue general obligation bonds. We’re also a conduit issuer for charter school bonds. There’s no way that I can’t be, or stay up on, the ebb and flow of the municipal bond market. As you mentioned we do run an approximately $11 billion public treasurers’ investment fund, or what some states call a local government investment pool. That’s a short-term liquidity operating funds vehicle for local governments. That’s something that we pay very close attention to, and I can’t help but stay up with what’s happening in the money market arena and short-term corporate debt market. A lot of it’s sort of imposed upon me by my duties as treasurer. It doesn’t hurt that I love this stuff.

AFP: Let’s turn now to the election. Congratulations on winning. What was it like to campaign? It’s a state-wide office. There’s this old stereotype of the treasurer stuck in his or her cubicle or office, very focused on the tasks at hand, and not getting out of the cubical.

Damschen: I’ve been a finance and treasury professional my whole career. I’m in this for the work. I love the work. When you introduce the politics aspect and the campaigning, you’re going down a different avenue. It’s really focused heavily on education. Frankly most Utah taxpayers, most voters, and even a lot of, I dare say, most legislators either don’t understand what the State Treasurer does or barely understands it. I wouldn’t expect that they would, but I feel a huge burden to educate folks on what we do.

To me the campaigning process was so much about that. From that standpoint I enjoyed it a lot, and I love hearing from Utah taxpayers and voters. What their questions and concerns were. It was a great process. I have a lot of new friends just one year after being appointed. It obviously takes a huge commitment of time and energy as well. It does distract you from the work, but that’s a temporary distraction. I’m very happy now to have the uncertainty of the election behind me and to be able to shift my focus entirely back to the work.

Hear the full podcast here.

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