State Treasurer Nancy Kopp Not Slowing Down
Bethesda resident has been in state government for 40 years
Photo by Liz Lynch
When Nancy Kopp received an unexpected achievement award from her alma mater, Wellesley College in Massachusetts, on the 50th anniversary of her graduation earlier this year, it led to some retrospection.
“It made me think back on what I had done, most of which was not intended or at all planned,” she says. In February, the same month she was honored by Wellesley, she was re-elected by the Maryland General Assembly to a fourth full term as state treasurer. Her initial selection to that post in 2002 followed 27 years of representing the Bethesda area in the state House of Delegates.
For Kopp, 2015 marks 40 years of public service. Now 71, she will become the second-longest-serving treasurer in state history when her term ends in 2019—and she says she hasn’t ruled out seeking a fifth term.
“She was a star in the House of Delegates because she understood the budget like nobody else,” says state Attorney General Brian Frosh, who shared representation of Bethesda-based District 16 with Kopp for 15 years. However, Frosh adds: “She’s not a natural-born politician. She’s kind of a natural-born college professor.”
In fact, that’s precisely the job Kopp aspired to when she graduated from Wellesley in 1965 and headed to the University of Chicago. She completed the course work and preliminary exams for a Ph.D. in political philosophy, and then she and her husband, Robert, headed east so he could accept a job at the U.S. Department of Justice.
After the couple moved into a home in Bethesda’s Mohican Hills neighborhood, where they still live, Kopp found that she didn’t have the self-discipline to finish her dissertation outside of an academic setting. “I went to work on Capitol Hill instead,” she says. After two years, a colleague encouraged her to apply for a newly created job as staff aide to the county’s delegation at the Maryland Legislature. “State government, much to my surprise, was terrifically fascinating,” she says. When an opening came up in District 16 in 1974, Kopp won the Democratic nomination and was elected at the age of 31 to the first of seven terms as a state legislator.
Today, women make up more than 30 percent of the General Assembly, but when Kopp arrived in Annapolis, the figure was barely 7 percent. Shortly after her election, Kopp and another newly elected District 16 Democrat, Marilyn Goldwater, became the first women ever appointed to the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
“The speaker of the House [the late John Hanson Briscoe] told the Appropriations Committee chairman—who was a conservative curmudgeon from the Eastern Shore—that he had to have at least one woman on his committee,” Kopp says.
In 1976, she became the first sitting state legislator—not just in Maryland, but anywhere in the country, according to Kopp—to give birth while in office. During the General Assembly’s 90-day sessions over the next couple of years, Kopp and her husband rented a house in Annapolis, and he commuted daily to Washington, D.C.
Kopp is only the second woman to serve as Maryland treasurer—an accomplishment that gives her little satisfaction. “Just as I would have thought we’d have a woman governor by now, or a woman president by now, I’m not proud of being the only woman in [Maryland statewide] constitutional office,” she says.
As treasurer, Kopp oversees the investment of state funds and the reconciliation of the state’s books with its bank accounts. She’s most visible as a member of the Board of Public Works, where she, the governor and the state comptroller vote on capital construction projects and major state procurement contracts.
For the past eight years, one of her Board of Public Works colleagues has been Comptroller Peter Franchot, a fellow Montgomery County resident who served with Kopp in the House of Delegates and on the Appropriations Committee. Kopp and Franchot occasionally found themselves on opposite sides of 2-1 votes during Martin O’Malley’s governorship.
“Even though I may have the more flamboyant style,” Franchot says, “she also has a great deal of courage, and her low-key style doesn’t always get the attention that mine does.”
Franchot cites the 2014 episode in which Kopp, as chair of the state’s pension board, argued against a move by the General Assembly to cut $100 million in payments to the state retirement system.
“Some of the proposals last year that Gov. O’Malley put forth would have been extremely expensive to the state in the long run. That was the case I was making on behalf of the pension board, and some people didn’t like it,” she says. “Well, that’s part of the job. I could never be the sort of legislator, and I don’t think I can be the sort of treasurer, whose main concern is being re-elected.”