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‘Desert Angel’ Garrity: Pa.’s new treasurer pledges openness, close scrutiny of pension funds

After a surprise victory in the November election, Stacy Garrity is to be sworn in next month as Pennsylvania's treasurer.

Stacy Garrity, Pennsylvania's newly elected Republican treasurer.
Stacy Garrity, Pennsylvania's newly elected Republican treasurer.Read moreCourtesy of Garrity for PA

Outspent 8-1, Stacy Garrity was a long shot for the job she won in November as Pennsylvania’s new treasurer, the first Republican voters picked for the job in 20 years.

Now as Garrity, 55, prepares to take on her first elected position, she does not cut a broadly different figure from the man she is replacing, Democrat Joe Torsella. She promises openness and to push for reform in the state’s two big public pension funds.

“A lot of their investment strategies have not produced the returns expected,” she said Wednesday about the funds. “I think board members have an obligation to oversee each pension’s fund management. It’s good to have a healthy level of skepticism.”

Garrity, a retired Army colonel and corporate finance executive, acknowledges that she settled for the GOP nomination for the statewide watchdog post after President Donald Trump iced her out of the nomination she really wanted: a seat in Congress.

“I think I was supposed to be a sacrificial lamb — Joe Torsella was pretty well-liked,” she told me. “The more people said, ‘You can never win,’ the more rallies in the more counties I got to, talking about the need for checks and balances in Harrisburg,” and for a financial Republican to act as watchdog over Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

With help from allies ranging from longtime GOP power player Bob Asher to Bikers for Trump and Veterans for Trump, Garrity ran well across Pennsylvania, lifted by the same Republican tide that made winners out of many candidates not named Trump even as he lost the state to Joe Biden.

She also points to her backing from the unions for Pennsylvania police and prison guards, which have emerged as kingmakers in well-matched statewide elections. Union members in uniform also backed Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, helping him hold his job even as voters narrowly dumped Torsella.

Garrity grew up in Bradford County, part of Pennsylvania’s depressed Northern Tier, with its indebted dairy farmers and half-empty boroughs and hopes of a natural-gas-fueled revival. Three of her sisters, like millions of Pennsylvanians in recent decades, left the state seeking opportunity.

“My real passion is keeping industrial jobs in Pennsylvania,” and Congress seemed the place to do that, Garrity said.

Instead, Trump anointed a rival from the area, state Rep. Fred Keller, as his choice to fill a vacancy in the heavily GOP district. Garrity said she reviewed her alternatives, prayed over the unclaimed treasurer’s nomination, and agreed to go for it.

In Bradford County, Garrity had worked for decades for European-owned Global Tungsten and Powders. In that role, she more recently helped lobby the Trump administration to approve a “prohibition on the acquisition of sensitive materials from non-allied foreign nations” — limiting imports of tungsten from her company’s rivals in China. She calls the measure the “Don’t Buy from the Bad Guys Act.”

Demand for tungsten, which can withstand temperatures hotter than steel before melting, has been growing for use in the latest high-velocity artillery. Garrity and her U.S. tungsten allies argued it made little sense to buy this strategic material from China, even if it had the largest reserves. (There is little tungsten mining in the U.S.; Garrity says her company buys tungsten from other foreign suppliers and also stresses recycling.)

The campaign meant U.S. taxpayers spent more for the metal. But it also helped save 500 county jobs at Global Tungsten’s factory.

After graduating from Bloomsburg University with a degree in finance and economics, Garrity joined the Army. She put together a 30-year-career in the military, serving three tours in Iraq, then mostly in the reserves while also working for the tungsten company.

As an MP and reservist major in an Army unit stationed in Iraq in the early years of the U.S. occupation there, she helped run the prison at Camp Bucca. A National Public Radio news account from 2004 reported that her superior officer called her “the Angel of the Desert” for her humane approach, contrasting her camp with the torture-stained Abu Ghraib prison.

Garrity says she helped Camp Bucca achieve one rare period of “zero abuse allegations,” by “walking my facility between midnight and 4 a.m. It’s like your mother used to say: ‘Nothing good happens after midnight.’” Garrity turned in a group of four soldiers who had abused arriving inmates. They were discharged.

Garrity continued to rise in the ranks, retiring from the reserves a full colonel, with two Bronze Stars.

As treasurer, Garrity’s goals sound similar to that of Torsella, only the second elected Pennsylvania treasurer since 1997 to not face corruption charges.

“Pennsylvanians deserve better. Young people are leaving,” Garrity says. “Too many taxpayers don’t feel they are getting value for their money.”

Garrity says Torsella’s team has been very cooperative in welcoming their Republican replacements.

Among the many fellow Republicans whose counsel she has sought is State Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon), a retired Marine officer and accountant who serves on the board of the $60 billion pension fund for public school employees (PSERS). As treasurer, Garrity will automatically have a seat on that board, as well as the panel running for the state government employees’ fund (SERS).

Ryan often voted with Torsella against the public-school union reps and supporters who dominate the educators’ fund.

The board’s majority, now led by Lower Merion history teacher Chris SantaMaria, has routinely endorsed staff calls to hire high-priced money managers, though their advice has not led the fund to outperform the stock market in recent years. Ryan and Torsella were among critics of that approach.

Government talks about transparency but seldom does enough to make it happen, Garrity said. Noting that the teachers’ pension fund had recently begun streaming its meeting online, Garrity said that the state employees’ fund should do the same.

In government as is in uniform or in the private sector, Garrity concluded, determination is key: “You need to focus on your mission.”