In 2002, immersed in a 29-year accounting career in the private sector, Kim Wallin was nominated from the floor and elected by popular vote as president-elect of the Institute of Management Accountants — the first time such a thing had happened in the association’s then-83-year history. (The IMA’s nominating committee normally chooses the president-elect.) After she won, a friend asked her what her plans were. “Well,” Wallin said flippantly, “I’ll run for governor of Nevada.”
Her friend, who worked at the state’s Democratic Party headquarters, remembered that comment a few years later as party operatives struggled to find someone with a CPA to be a candidate for state controller, and thus match up equally with the Republican contender. “They were going through a rolodex looking for accountants and saying, ‘Wrong party. Wrong party. Wrong party,’” recalls Wallin. “And my friend said, ‘I know someone.’”
Elected in 2006 as Nevada state controller, Wallin is now embroiled in a tough reelection fight in which voters are treating incumbents with something harsher than kid gloves. If she wins, a run for governor in the future may not be so far-fetched. (Florida CFO Alex Sink is currently vying for that state’s top spot in a tight race.) Leading by 4% in the polls four weeks before Election Day, Wallin took time between campaign appearances to speak with CFO about the challenges of her office and of her candidacy. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Like other CFOs, you have a diverse set of responsibilities on your plate: accounting, deciding how money is spent, and debt collection, to name a few. Unlike other finance chiefs, though, you have to run for your office to keep your job. How do you balance your financial responsibilities with the burdens of being a political candidate?
It’s a very hard career, trying to do my job and run for office. For accountants or finance persons, running for office takes us out of our comfort zones. We went into these professions because we were more introverted. But when you run for office, you really have to be out there.
Another difficult thing to deal with is that my political advisers are constantly trying to put words into my mouth, asking me to use political buzzwords like “transparency,” “accountability,” “reduced government waste.” I tell them that I don’t want to run like a politician, I want to talk about real things. But they’ll say this is what the public wants to hear.
Raising funds for the campaign isn’t easy, either. I’m an accountant, and it’s hard for me to start calling up people and asking them for money. It’s tough for people in this economy, and I’m lucky if I’m getting half the money I got last time — if that much. So I’ve really expanded my net: I’m calling everybody I ever met in my life to ask for money.
In terms of my job, I’m basically just putting out fires. Right now, it just boils down to continuing to raise money and going to events.
Compared with your last campaign, is this a particularly difficult one?
It is a tough campaign, because of the sentiment of voters. They are very angry because they don’t have jobs and they’re struggling — and they just take it out on you. The last time I ran, if I met people who didn’t have the same philosophy that I had, we could agree to disagree. This time, I’ve had some people who just about attacked me.
Attacked you physically?
Let’s put it this way: one person got within six inches of my face. So that’s pretty intimidating. There just doesn’t seem to be the respect out there for differences of opinion or beliefs. When this one individual found out I was a Democrat, she said she would never vote for another Democrat again. She said that she was tricked once already, and proceeded to bash President Obama. Then she said she voted for him because she didn’t like Sarah Palin. She just went on and on, and I started to back up and try to get a table between her and me.
You don’t have security when you travel?
No. The only constitutional officer who has security in the state is the governor.
What have been your biggest challenges as controller?
If you’re in Corporate America, all the departments work together for the same common goal. One of the biggest challenges I face is that in government there are huge silos. Each department has its kingdom and protects its turf instead of working together with the other agencies as one single organization. That really leads to inefficiency.
Coming from the private sector, it’s also been hard to adjust to how slow it is to get things done in government. For example, when we issued a request for contracts for our debt-collection system, it took us about 10 months to get the contract finalized — and we’re not talking about an ERP project, we’re talking about a database for debt collection.
Besides automating debt collection, what else have you done to improve your management of accounts receivable?
When I came into office, I started digging and discovered that only a small part of the state’s debt was being handed over to the controller’s office for collection. The reason was that although our statute said the controller was responsible for collecting debt, it was optional for state agencies to send me their debt to collect. So they would send it to me whenever they got around to it, if they’d send it in at all. The average age of debt turned over to our office was 486 days.
During the 2009 legislative session, I proposed a bill to mandate that the agencies turn their debts over to me if they were 60 days past due unless I provide them with an exemption. The bill became law, and the result is that as of the end of August, $72 million in debt had been turned over for collection to our office. When I began the job, it was only $10 million.
We’ve also increased the number of outside collection agencies working for us from one to three, and we publish the names of the debtors on our Website unless privacy rules prohibit it.
Was the comment you made about running for governor really so flippant? Do you see yourself running for the state’s top spot in the future?
I don’t know. I have had both Democrats and Republicans saying, “Kim, why don’t you run for governor?” Everybody’s talking about having to cut spending, and they have no idea about where they can cut or how to go about doing it. And I talk about actual solutions. But I have to get through running for controller.