Why Don’t More State Auditors Run for Higher Office?

The job prepares politicians for the next level. But not many use it as a stepping stone.
by | August 20, 2015

When political pros think about the best launching pads for higher office, a few positions come to mind—among them are state attorney general, mayor and even corporate CEO. Few politicians think about the office of state auditor.

But there are good reasons why tenure as a state auditor should be valuable to someone seeking to climb the political ladder. While the job duties vary somewhat from state to state, auditors are typically responsible for rooting out fiscal irregularities in state agencies and local governments. This gives auditors a soapbox much like that enjoyed by top prosecutors, which is the ability to crack down on “bad guys” in a quest for justice.

“You can get a lot of positive press as you pursue some of these bad financial tactics or frauds,” said Kinney Poynter, the executive director of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers. “You would think there would be a natural progression to higher office, but there hasn’t been much.”

David Schultz, a Hamline University political scientist, agreed, adding that “the skills are political, having won state office and built up name recognition and party support, and the duties of office are useful—knowledge of local governments and budgets, and supervising a state from the perspective of being an executive constitutional officer.”

While fiscal accountability is the bread-and-butter of state auditor jobs, officials in this role are involved in many key policy debates. For instance, Colorado’s state auditor has produced landmark reports on the state’s health insurance exchange and the implementation of marijuana legalization. And California’s auditor has taken a growing role in the redistricting process.

Conversations with those who follow state auditors produced the names of only a handful that eventually moved up the political ranks. Three were from Missouri—Republicans Kit Bond and John Ashcroft, both of whom would later serve as governor and U.S. senator, and current Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill. Two were governors of Minnesota: Republican Arne Carlson and Democrat Mark Dayton. Pennsylvania had a Democratic father-and-son duo in the position of auditor-general, the elder (who became governor) and younger Robert Casey (who is now a U.S. senator). And in Mississippi, two governors, Democrat Ray Mabus and Republican Phil Bryant, previously served as state auditor.

This may sound like a decent number, but it’s all we could find over a span of more than three decades. So in context, it’s not an overwhelming amount. That said, political observers in each of these states said the auditor job was helpful in advancing these politicians’ career paths.

Mississippi’s Mabus, for instance, helped with a major FBI sting operation that recovered millions in misspent and stolen public funds. The operation netted indictments of 57 county supervisors in 25 counties; 55 ended up going to prison. Not long after, he was elected governor.

Bryant, too, used the office effectively.

“During his tenure as auditor, he gained the image of a staunch fighter for the interests of Mississippi taxpayers by recovering $12 million that had been misspent or embezzled,” said Steve Rozman, a political scientist at Tougaloo College.

Such stories are not unusual in the states where auditors went on to bigger things.

“Auditors can display great skills to the public, involving accounting and legal skills,” said Ken Warren, a political scientist at Saint Louis University in Missouri. “They are often seen as a serious person conducting serious state business.”

So why, then, is there a relative shortage of politically ambitious state auditors?

For starters, given the nature of the job, it helps to have a degree in accounting or a background in financial management. Not having one may weed out some candidates who otherwise might be interested in pursuing the job.

In addition, only 24 state auditor jobs are actually elective offices. The partisan breakdown is pretty even: 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats. Two states are scheduled to hold auditor elections in 2015: Kentucky (currently held by a Democrat) and Mississippi (currently held by a Republican). The other auditors are appointed to the post, some by the governor and some by the legislature. Appointees don’t have to come up through electoral politics, and for some, a career seeking support on the campaign trail is not a natural part of their skill set.

There’s also a fine line between being an aggressive watchdog and an aggressive partisan. Temperamentally, many auditors try to be careful not to show a partisan side, which can be antithetical to running for office.

“The key for state auditors is their independence,” said Dianne Ray, a state auditor appointed by the Colorado legislature in 2011. A certified public account who previously worked in local government finance, Ray said she has “always been a nonpartisan person.” She oversees an office with 72 full-time positions.

Indeed, the job tends to be technocratic.

“About half our work is in performance audits, and on that side, it’s important to have an inquiring mind about how a program can work and how to make government more efficient,” Ray said.

The job, of course, isn’t entirely risk-free for a politician with ambition.

Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto has come under fire recently. (AP/Jim Mone)

An unusual flap has emerged in Minnesota, where the elected Democratic state auditor has come under fire for an issue that’s actually ancillary to her primary duties of investigating financial irregularities. By virtue of being state auditor, Rebecca Otto, an elected Democrat, sits on several state boards, including the state executive council alongside the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and attorney general. In that position, she has a voice in decisions about such matters as mining leases.

It was one of those deliberations that caused a political problem for Otto. She voted against exploration at a proposed copper and nickel mine in Northern Minnesota, a region of the state that’s home to many Democrats who support mining. Meanwhile, Democrats in urban and suburban areas tend to take more pro-environmentalist stances, Otto faced intraparty fire and wound up facing former House Minority Leader Matt Entenza in a primary in 2014.

Otto beat Entenza easily and was re-elected in November, but earlier this year, lawmakers passed language that would allow localities to hire private auditors, effectively weakening the auditor’s office. It was widely perceived as retaliation against Otto’s mining stances.

“This episode represents a most dangerous threat to our state’s constitution in that it constitutes an effort to intimidate an elected official,” Carlson, the former auditor and governor, wrote in June. “What’s next? If the attorney general disagrees on a policy matter with a segment of the legislature is it acceptable for the legislature then to privatize her office and render her powerless?”

The flap highlights the longstanding tension between an auditor’s required independence and the messy imperatives of partisan politics—another possible reason not many auditors run for higher office.