McCrory budget director Lee Roberts considering N.C. treasurer race

Lee Roberts addresses the news media at a budget press conference in July 2015.
Lee Roberts addresses the news media at a budget press conference in July 2015.

Lee Roberts shares a laugh with the capitol press corps before a budget press conference in July 2015.

RALEIGH — Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director Lee Roberts is considering a run for state treasurer, according to a well-placed source. The news that Janet Cowell (D) will not seek a third term as North Carolina’s treasurer, first reported by Jones & Blount early Tuesday, has moved the race from an uphill battle to about even money for Republicans, political observers say.

Roberts had not been considering a run for the office of treasurer, which as a member of the Council of State is elected separately from the governor and, just as agriculture commissioner or lieutenant governor, is not a part of the governor’s cabinet. But with Cowell’s news Tuesday, Roberts is said to be fielding numerous calls asking him to run or inquiring whether he will.

McCrory appointed Roberts budget director when Art Pope left the post in August 2014. He is a former banking executive and is known as a quick study, a perspicacity needed to direct the state’s $21 billion budget and stay afloat in Raleigh’s turbulent political waters. His big push into the limelight was the presentation of McCrory’s second biennial budget proposal to the General Assembly in early 2015.

LeeRoberts

N.C. budget director Lee Roberts.

During the budget roll-out, Roberts seemed undaunted by the spotlight from both legislators and the news media, handling questions from all angles with poise. Some might say he comes by the poise naturally; Roberts is the son of print and television journalist Cokie Roberts and political commentator Steven Roberts.

Roberts has navigated the inside-the-beltline politics well, but the biggest hurdle he faces may be from the grass roots. After all, Roberts is not a registered Republican, and some party loyalists were aghast when McCrory made Roberts the surprise pick to replace Pope.

Election records show that while Roberts is unaffiliated, he has voted in Republican primary elections consistently. He has given money to Republicans and Democrats on the state and national level, but more has gone to the GOP. And Roberts, 46, does not have the Republican pedigree many might expect from a GOP Council of State candidate. His grandfather Hale Boggs was the U.S. House Democratic Majority Leader, and his grandmother Lindy Boggs was a Democratic member of Congress from Louisiana.

However, political watchers say that Roberts might be a strong candidate for treasurer regardless.

“That’s the one statewide position where a moderate Republican might be palatable to the base,” said a veteran Republican strategist contacted Tuesday. “It’s more about keeping the books straight than pushing policy.”

Other names that have been floated on the Republican side are Edgar Starnes, a former state House member from Caldwell County, and Dale Folwell, currently head of the employment security division of the N.C. Department of Commerce. Considering Cowell’s unexpected announcement, it is not surprising that no names for Democratic candidates have yet emerged. The filing period for the treasurer’s race begins Dec. 1 and ends Dec. 21.

The N.C. Republican Party was charitable toward Cowell Tuesday but said the treasurer’s race would be a “high priority” for the party, considering financial discipline is an issue on which many voters trust Republicans.

“While we have questions about some decisions and priorities in the North Carolina treasurer’s office, today we honor Ms. Cowell’s public service and wish her well in retirement.” said N.C. GOP Chairman Hasan Harnett. “This important role in our state government is responsible for keeping North Carolina fiscally strong and maintaining fiduciary oversight of our state, a position well aligned with the priorities of the North Carolina Republican Party.”