Candidate interview: Joe Torsella

Office sought: Pennsylvania Treasurer

Party: Democrat

Torsella, a Montgomery County resident, said he would bring his local, state and international experience as a fiscal watchdog to the Treasurer’s Office. He served as deputy mayor for policy and planning under Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell in the early 1990s, founding president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, chair of the State Board of Education and, from 2011-14, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for Management and Reform. For more information, visit

PGN: How has your background prepared you to lead the Treasurer’s Office?

JT: This job is squarely in my wheelhouse. What I’ve done with my life in public service has been largely about helping public entities do a better job of using their resources. I did that when I was deputy mayor under Ed Rendell and even at the beginning of my work with the National Constitution Center, when it was in virtual bankruptcy, and I took it to what it is today, raising $200 million and got it on the right course. And then most recently as our U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for Management and Reform, being our fiscal watchdog at the U.N., a $36-billion system. What the Treasury needs is someone to do three things: restore integrity to the office, which has been tarnished too often in scandal; be an effective fiscal watchdog; and use the powerful tools of the job to advance more opportunities for more Pennsylvanians. I think what I’ve done with my life is the exact skill set the job requires.

PGN: What would you do to ensure diversity in your office?

JT: That’s something I’ve been always committed to. I want to make sure that diversity is front and center, and in not just how I think about the office frankly, but how we also think about using the tools of the Treasury to advance diversity more generally. There have been efforts by other treasurers — states essentially own their shares in every public company in the country — to advance diversity on corporate boards, which, by the way, is not just good because it reflects our values but it has been shown to be good for the bottom line of the companies. Diverse boards have more profitable companies. I want to stand for diversity not just in the office but also beyond that, in how we leverage Pennsylvania’s resources more broadly beyond the borders of our state. I want to be a voice in Harrisburg and nationally, beyond just the Treasurer’s Office. I would want to go to Harrisburg and be an advocate for finally passing the Pennsylvania Fairness Act and moving us off the list of states that don’t provide basic fundamental protections to LGBT citizens. In my time at the U.N., I was part of an administration that made LGBT issues and rights a central part of our agenda, with the result that we got the U.N. body resolution on LGBT rights for the first time ever, which produced the report on the state of LGBT rights around the world for the first time ever. It was also an administration that made LGBT issues featured on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council for the first time. In all this, I’ve made the point that LGBT rights are not some special category but basic human rights.

PGN: What mechanisms would you put in place to ensure transparency?

JT: My favorite subject. We in Pennsylvania have seen way too much scandal in public office, particularly in this office. Three of the last treasurers have been brought up on federal charges. I am of the view that more transparency is the only way we will clean up this mess. I put forward a detailed agenda: One, make it possible for every Pennsylvanian to go online and see not just every dollar in state spending and contracts, but every dollar in political giving by people who get those contracts. Two, I will hire a chief integrity officer to create cultural integrity in the whole department. Three, I’m going to ban this outrageous practice we have in Pennsylvania of paying middle men as money managers who then get compensated, which is money we can’t afford to spend and that has been shown to lead to scandal. My administration will be one of transparency. In my U.N. efforts, I was responsible for a truly historic breakthrough in transparency at the U.N. Items that were on the U.N. agenda for years but were not able to get done, I got done, including the U.N. publishing audits for the first time in history and making every U.N. committee meeting webcast worldwide; they’d been closed to the public before I got there. It’s something I’m deeply committed to and have a record of achievement on. [Transparency] is what I think is the number-one prescription for the disease of corruption we have seen in Harrisburg.

PGN: Although your office is not involved in crafting legislation, what efforts, if any, would you engage in to advance pro-LGBT legislation such as the nondiscrimination or hate-crimes bills?

JT: The office is a couple things, and one is a $100-million bully pulpit. The Treasurer’s Office is the custodian of $100 million of Pennsylvania’s money, and that provides a powerful platform both within the state but also beyond the state. What you’ve seen if you look around the country, like with Denise Nappier in Connecticut or the treasurer of Missouri, you’ll see they’ve used the power of those shares to advance these values more broadly than within the states. So I will advocate, for example, holding corporations accountable on whether they’re disclosing their political contributions, including to anti-LGBT-rights campaigns. The Missouri treasurer serves on the state’s housing board and introduced protections for LGBT renters into the state policy that way. There’s the equivalent in Pennsylvania because the treasurer sits on 18 boards and commissions within Pennsylvania but also has power of using our commonwealth to advance a forward-looking agenda more broadly and nationally.

PGN: Why should LGBT voters support you?

JT: Well, I would have two answers to that. One is consistent with what I said earlier about LGBT rights being human rights. LGBT voters are taxpayers, business owners, pensioners, people who care about the quality of government and the state. Sadly, we’ve fallen far behind recently when it comes to basic human rights and on public-policy innovation, and I want them to know I’m going to bring to this office all the determination and innovation and energy that I’ve shown in positions I’ve held in the past. I’m going to make the office not the source of embarrassment it has been but a source of progress and pride and problem-solving. I am passionate about creating opportunities for Pennsylvanians through this office and have put forward a number of ways to do that, from personal retirement accounts for people in workplaces without retirement savings to universal college-savings accounts for every child born in Pennsylvania. I have a record on LGBT issues, from my time at the Rendell administration to the Constitutional Center and to the Obama administration at the U.N. It’s a record I’m proud of and that I would keep adding to in this post. That’s among the differences between me and my opponent. He proudly brags he was the first statewide Republican candidate in Pennsylvania to endorse Donald Trump. He not just stood by Donald Trump throughout every one of his new lows he reached in his historically hateful and divisive campaign, he campaigns with him, leading the crowd in chants of “Lock her up” [in reference to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton]. He doesn’t support the same protections I do support for LGBT Pennsylvania. I think if voters see my record, they’ll think I’m their pick. 

Republican nominee for Pennsylvania Treasurer, Otto Voit, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.