Democrat and CFP Andy Millard sold his practice earlier this year in an all-out bid for a seat in Congress.
He's going to need all the time and resources he can muster, say observers who give him long odds at trying to unseat six-term Republican incumbent Patrick McHenry in North Carolina's 10th district, while also battling to represent investors on the Hill where the influence of Wall Street money remains strong.
None of this deters Millard, who unloaded his Tryon, N.C.-firm Milliard & Co. in February, and says he sees this election a referendum on the current political system.
INVESTORS 'NOT WELL-REPRESENTED'
"I do not believe the interests of our side of the business are well-represented in Congress," he says of the field of independent financial planning. "To my mind, that means that the financial consumer is not well-represented in Congress."
If he were to win, Millard could be the first CFP to serve in Congress; the CFP Board could not say if any congressional leaders have held the CFP designation in the past.
Many of Millard's former clients have volunteered to work on his campaign, he says. The former planner believes his experience as an investment adviser would be helpful in Congress, where members often debate financial-policy issues without a solid understanding of the RIA business, such as the definition of fiduciary client service. To that end, he is positioning himself as a strong defender of Social Security and Medicare, opposing privatization schemes and calling the programs "essentials for the financial security of America's seniors now and in the future."
His hope is to advocate for forward-looking fiscal and social policies, just as he worked with clients planning for retirement, saving for college tuition and transitioning family money to the next generation.
In that sense, Millard sees his campaign as an expansion of his practice.
"I'm a financial planner, so I'm going to be talking about things like financial planning issues — for lack of a better term: a financial plan for America," he says.
ONE SINGLE RETIREMENT PLAN
Retirement planning is a core issue that Millard has identified in his congressional campaign, declaring on his website that "the retirement crisis is the biggest problem in this country not being talked about." He warns that the current "alphabet soup" of retirement plans — 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, Simple IRAs and the like — is confusing and poorly serves middle-income savers.
"I would like to see a single, simple, unified, universal retirement savings plan that everyone can participate in," he says, promising to introduce legislation to that end if elected. Such a plan would be easily transferable as workers change jobs. Companies would have the option to set their matching terms under Millard's proposal, which would create a market environment in which job seekers could evaluate prospective employers partly on the attributes of their retirement programs.
At the same time, Millard acknowledges that, by design, his plan is not yet "fully formed." He is not looking to barnstorm Capitol Hill as a freshman congressman with a ready-made agenda. If elected, he says, he would start in listening mode, working through committee assignments with more tenured members of the chamber — on both sides of the aisle — to build coalitions and translate his ideas into legislative action.
A strong supporter of the Department of Labor's fiduciary rule now under fire from congressional Republicans, Millard says he might support legislation to empower the SEC to collect user fees to fund a more rigorous examination regime for investment advisers.
RIA FEES TO SEC
"If I still owned my practice, I would have no problem paying an annual fee to help beef up the budget at the SEC to make that happen," he says.
At the same time, he's the first to acknowledge that political campaigns aren't won or lost on debates about regulation of advisers or their fiduciary responsibilities.
"You start talking fiduciary and retirement planning in the same sentence, you know people are going to want to start gouging their eyes out," he says. "It's not something that is terribly compelling."
That seeming indifference to adviser concerns is hardly limited to the campaign trail. Industry insiders have long noted the limited appetite members of Congress have shown in taking up some of the issues that most directly affect RIAs, in part because of a general lack of understanding about the nuances of the profession.
CFPS NEEDED ON HILL
Duane Thompson, senior policy analyst at the fiduciary training firm fi360, says that as a Washington lobbyist he faced an "uphill" battle trying to educate lawmakers about planning issues.
However, he also noted that when a Congressional committee debates a health care issue, the few members of Congress with medical backgrounds are often deferred to as experts. Someone with Millard's background — a CFP and fee only adviser — could play a similar role when lawmakers turn their attention to an issue like adviser exams, Thompson says.
"It's pretty clear to me that most members of Congress are generalists — they cover the [waterfront] on issues from national security to naming the local post office," Thompson says. "If you had a CFP elected to Congress, that person would be, I think, turned into a natural leader on personal finance issues."
'FIGHTING ABOVE OUR WEIGHT'
Lobbyist Neil Simon, vice president for government relations at the Investment Adviser Association, notes that big banks and brokerages vastly outspend independent advisers, who comprise a less moneyed subset of financial services industry.
"We are fighting above our weight," he says. "It certainly would be helpful if there were more members of Congress who had actual hands-on, real-world experience working as financial planners or investment advisers before they were elected to Congress."
Several CFPs have held positions in state legislatures, but neither Thompson nor Simon said they know of any other CFPs who have held congressional seats.
To win one himself, Millard must prevail in a district that last elected a democrat in the 1960s.
Two nonpartisan newsletters offer a glimpse into the challenge he faces. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report calls the seat "safe Republican." The Cook Political Report deems it "solid Republican."
A TRUMP BOOST?
Located in the western part of the state, the 10th district includes the conservative suburbs of Charlotte as well as the Democratic-leaning town of Asheville.
Millard is seeking to paint his opponent as partisan who is out-of-touch with his district.
McHenry's campaign did not respond to phone and email requests for a response to this characterization.
One wild card that could boost Millard's chances is any backlash from the campaign of the Republican nominee Donald Trump, says David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College and an expert on North Carolina politics.
Some of Trump's rhetoric — in particular his "crude style and inconsistent positions on things like guns"— could alienate conservative voters in some of North Carolina's rural counties, including the 10th, McLennan says.
That prospect is "the only thing in Millard's favor," McLennan says. "The district, however, is so decidedly Republican that even a Trump meltdown may not be enough to carry Millard to victory [over] Patrick McHenry."
Millard says he is unfazed at the steep odds.
"Those leading forecasting organizations are incorrect," he says, suggesting that he could benefit from down-ticket fallout triggered by the Trump campaign.
He called this election season "the craziest in recent memory where anything can happen. This is not a safe seat for anyone."
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