Can you name the current state treasurer?

Probably not. He's only been on the job for 28 years.

Let's face it, the treasurer's office, even under the fine direction of Ed Alter, is an anonymous calling, even if the state's economy is booming, which has usually been the case on Alter's watch.

It follows that an election campaign for state treasurer elicits a yawn, if that. A fight between two accountants? Who cares?

So why is the race for the Republican nomination for treasurer between Rep. Mark Walker and Rich Ellis eliciting an inordinate amount of talk and press coverage, not to mention the attention (or inattention) of the lieutenant governor, another guy most people couldn't name? Suddenly, big-shot Republicans are getting in line to weigh in on a candidate for treasurer.

See if you think this is a tough choice. In this corner, there is Walker, a 32-year-old guy whose qualifications consist largely of a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah and former employment with Zions Bank, supposedly as the bank's "manager of government finance," although the title sounds a lot more important than what he actually did, which, according to the Salt Lake Tribune's interview with a Zions rep, included "sourcing and developing prospects and new clients, selling business banking services and products and developing sales strategies and expanding referral sources." Walker's supporters tout the legislator as a champion of conservative legislation and a hard worker, but good luck finding it on his Web site, which notes that he sponsored three bills — licensing for real estate agents, rental fees and access to landlocked parcels.

In the other corner is Ellis, whose credentials include a Master of Business Administration from the University of Utah and 22 years in government finance, including eight years as chief deputy treasurer of the state, 10 years as treasurer and finance director at Draper city, and service in the cabinets of two governors.

Now, who do you want to manage $12 billion worth of state taxpayer money?

The office of treasurer isn't — or shouldn't be — a political position. Just hire the best man for managing the state's billions and get on with it. This is a no-brainer, right?

Not according to the Republican Party. Walker has the political backing of House Speaker Greg Curtis, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, House Majority Leader Dave Clark and Senate President John Valentine.

Rep. Steven Mascaro, another Republican, noted all this and was baffled. About two weeks ago, he contacted me after reading a column I wrote about how Republicans in this state do what they want because they answer to no one, especially voters, since they're guaranteed re-election. In what was a variation on the theme, Mascaro began his complaint about the treasurer's nomination.

"The thing I don't understand is what is behind the party leadership's financial and public support of Mark Walker for treasurer," he said. "We have a few positions where skills are required. It's not political. The treasurer is someone who knows something about managing and investing money and taking care of the public's money. As much as I like serving with Representative Walker, he is so unqualified for that position. It's nothing personal. He's a good guy of fine character, but he isn't qualified for this job.

"He does not have the education or the background to manage the public's money. It is mystifying. Rich Ellis has such incredible credentials. If you laid their resumes on a table and you were running a company, hands down you would select Rich Ellis. Representative (Gordon) Snow and myself and several others on the Republican side who have had their struggles with conservative Republicans are mystified by this concerted effort to get Walker elected."

Adding to the intrigue is this little side drama: Ellis has accused Walker of offering him a $160,000-a-year job in March if he'd drop out of the race, a charge Walker denies. Gary Herbert — the lieutenant governor and a fellow Republican — recently announced that he will wait until after the June 24 primary election before deciding whether Ellis' allegation merits further investigation, explaining that "any action on my part at this time could influence participation in or the outcome of the June 24 primary election."

"It doesn't surprise me," said Mascaro. "The folks in our party who have a tendency to get behind some of these things get behind to the nth degree to crowd the line of what's right. It seems to happen on a regular basis. Mark is being supported by our right-wing Republican group that has a tendency to push the authority of their positions to the very edge to get what they want."

So how does he explain the support of Walker? "Someone suggested," Mascaro said, "it's the right wing's way of saying they've got the authority and power to do what they want in our party."


E-mail: drob@desnews.com