HARRISBURG - Amid the noise surrounding this year's increasingly divisive presidential and senatorial campaigns, the low-key race for state treasurer has struggled to gain traction among voters.

No glossy mailers, slick campaign commercials, or rousing speeches. Not even a debate.

But the candidates vying for the $158,764-a-year job to replace current state Treasurer Timothy A. Reese say voters would be paying more attention if they realized the office's sweeping power over taxpayer money.

The next treasurer will inherit a department that oversees more than $100 billion in state assets, manages an additional $20 billion in investments, and processes $90 billion in payments every year. The treasurer also sits on the boards of Pennsylvania's two large public employee pension agencies.

The next treasurer also will inherit an office that has been entangled in scandal on and off during the last three decades. The last elected state treasurer - Rob McCord - resigned in disgrace in early 2015 as he prepared to plead guilty to federal corruption charges of attempting to shake down state contractors during his unsuccessful run for governor.

Reese, appointed by Gov. Wolf to finish McCord's term, is not running.

Instead, this year's race pits the onetime CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Democrat Joe Torsella, against a Berks County businessman and Army veteran, Republican Otto Voit.

Also vying for the position are James Babb, a Libertarian, activist, and small-business owner from Montgomery County, and Kristin Combs, a Philadelphia schoolteacher and member of the Green Party.

All portray themselves as outsiders from Harrisburg's insular world, and with the exception of Voit, who has been a member of his local school board for more than 16 years, none has held an elective position.

The major-party candidates, Torsella and Voit, tread some common ground in their policy platforms, although they are far apart on fund-raising. As of the last reporting period, Torsella had nearly $1.8 million in cash on hand, to Voit's $113,704.

Both say they want to restore integrity, increase transparency, minimize the use of outside money managers to invest taxpayer money, and grow participation in the state-run college savings account programs.

For his part, Torsella supports eliminating the use of third-party firms that get the equivalent of a finder's fee for connecting money managers with treasury officials.

"It's not only that it's money out of our pockets - because it is," Torsella, 53, of Flourtown, Montgomery County, said in an interview last week. ". . . It creates the impression above all that you need to know someone to do business with the state in terms of the investment process."

If elected, he has said, he would establish automatic college or vocational training savings accounts for every child born in Pennsylvania, which he believes will increase access to higher education degrees and chip away at income inequality; and launch a "PA-IRA" program to allow private-sector employees without access to workplace retirement plans to create individual accounts that would draw money from automatic payroll deductions. There would be opt-out provisions.

Voit, 58, has said he would create a new website called PACheckbook.com that will allow people to search for details on spending for all state government entities.

"When I'm done implementing that, Pennsylvania will be number one for accountability and transparency," said Voit.

He said that he would start a scholarship and grant program to give financial assistance to students in Pennsylvania's public and private colleges and universities, and public technical colleges. The program would hinge on legislation passing the General Assembly to allow funding revenue to come from gambling expansion or from new state lottery games.

Voit also wants to boost the department's unclaimed-property program to more aggressively find those people who are owed money but might not know about it.

Saying he favored a voluntary system, Babb, 48, said in an interview that his primary goal would be to refund tax money and other fees to taxpayers statewide who have been coerced into paying into the system all these years out of fear of punishment. In his mind, that type of taxation amounts to theft of property.

"We are trying to run a marathon with a 50-pound backpack," said Babb. "That is what the state of Pennsylvania is. Imagine what it would feel like to put down that backpack and live your life without the burden of sustaining the political class."

Combs could not be reached for comment.

Although the nominees have not debated, Torsella and Voit have locked horns.

Voit has attempted to dismiss Torsella as a career insider who could not be independent.

Torsella was a deputy mayor under then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. Later, he became the CEO of the National Constitution Center, raising millions of dollars in private and public funds to help the museum move from concept to reality. He cochaired the city's effort to host the 2016 Olympic Games, and in 2008 was tapped by Rendell to chair the Pennsylvania Board of Education.

After bowing out of the 2010 U.S. Senate race to allow the late Arlen Specter to run as a Democrat, Torsella became an ambassador to the United Nations.

Torsella said that he has spent a significant portion of his career in public service - not public office - and that he is proud of that.

He has pounced on Voit as a radical who demonstrates poor judgment, unabashedly supporting Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump even after recent revelations that Trump made unwanted sexual advances toward numerous women and used crass language to boast about cashing in on his celebrity to grope them.

At a Trump rally early last week in Wilkes Barre, Voit told the crowd he would not waiver in his support.

Asked about that last week, Voit said the country is not electing a Sunday-school teacher - neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton would make that cut, he said - but a leader on financial and national security issues.

He also said he believes his choice for president should not matter in a treasurer's race.

"The treasurer is supposed to be independent," he said. "The treasurer doesn't answer to the legislature or the governor and certainly not to the president."

acouloumbis@phillynews.com

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