The office of state controller is one of the least talked about in California politics, but it may be the most interesting race in the June 7 primary.
Four Democrats and one Republican are vying with a Green Party candidate Tuesday for a top two spot on Tuesday, eventually running in November’s election to become the state’s independent financial watchdog.
Acting controller Betty Yee will leave the post in January due to term restrictions.
The list all but guarantees that GOP voters will rally behind their party’s candidate, Lanhee Chen, and provide the votes the tax adviser and educator needs to advance to the general election. But without a clear Democratic favorite, who will run against Chen remains a question mark.
“Chen will be the best vote collector,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican policy adviser. “Among Democrats, it’s a naming race, and often it goes to whoever spent the most money on them.”
Monterey Park City Council member Democrat Yvonne Yiu wins the money race by funding her own campaign.
A former financial advisor and management firm founder, Yiu has contributed $5.7 million of the nearly $6.1 million she has raised. According to recent campaign finance filings, most of their spending went on nationwide television advertising.
A relative newcomer to the public service who joined the city council in 2020, Yiu relies on the ads to solve the same problem all candidates face: most voters don’t know who they are.
An ad titled “Yiu for You” describes her as the only candidate “with the experience and expertise to save taxpayers’ money,” touting her more than 25 years of experience working in finance. She said she decided to fund her own campaign after political insiders, party delegates and advocacy groups rejected her candidacy.
“Putting my own money into the race makes me independent and voters will never ask if I have their best interests at heart because I don’t take money from lobbyists and money from interest groups,” Yiu said in an interview.
The Controller’s race isn’t usually a huge draw for political donors, so the rest of the Democratic field is looking for ways to get the most for their more limited campaign funds.
State Senator Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat with many years of experience in government and politics, has raised more than $2.7 million, with the California Chamber of Commerce, police officers, almond farmers and dentists among his top donors. Campaign records show much of his money was spent on slate mailers, one of the cheapest and easiest ways to get his name in front of voters.
The Controller is the chief financial officer for California and is responsible for disbursing all state funds. Like the other Democrats in the race, Glazer says he will have no problem scrutinizing the effectiveness and efficiency of government programs and opposing his own party when necessary.
“I have many years of experience and knowledge of how government works, and I am also willing to take on special interests and my party if I think they are not thinking things through or meeting the highest standards,” he told Glaser.
Glazer voted five years ago in the Senate against the Democrats’ gas tax hike — a move that forced the then governor to vote. Jerry Brown, to whom Glazer once served as a senior adviser, and legislative leaders persuaded a Republican senator to support the annual $5.2 billion transportation funding package.
Malia Cohen, a member of the State Board of Equalization and the most progressive Democrat in the race, is the only candidate to win the support of the California Democratic Party. Cohen said party delegates have been big supporters of her campaign and have joined the phone banking effort, but the party’s support will be a greater boon as it progresses beyond the primary.
As the first black woman to be elected to the board of directors of the state tax collection agency, the San Francisco native describes herself as a champion of justice who works to hold corporations accountable for paying their fair share of taxes.
“I’m deeply rooted and grounded in this ancient notion that the world should be fair,” said Cohen. “There are a lot of important initiatives being implemented and I just want to review that.”
Cohen has raised $1.4 million for her campaign, while an independent spending committee funded by teachers’ unions and the State Council of Service Employees International Union raised nearly $900,000, according to recent campaign reports.
She’s spent most of her money on TV commercials in the Bay Area and Sacramento in hopes a reminder of her tally can help voters who may know her.
Ron Galperin is the only candidate in the running with a controller title, having worked the job for the city of Los Angeles for nine years — a ballot designation that could give him a boost in the election.
“There are many opportunities to really make a difference in the controller’s office, and I have the experience to do that because I’ve done it for the City of LA,” Galperin said. “I think the advantage I have is that I did this job.”
Part of Galperin’s pitch is more government transparency, which he says he’s brought to LA by creating online dashboards to track the city’s spending on various financial initiatives in real time.
Galperin has less to watch out for in his own campaign, which has raised around $1 million. Unions are its biggest donors.
Laura Wells, a Green Party candidate, has run for several offices in recent years, including campaigning for governor in 2010. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, she said she supports the creation of a public bank to counteract the high cost of municipalities borrowing from Wall Street firms.
The fragmentation of the rest of the Controller nominee field means Chen, the sole Republican, is almost guaranteed to come out on top.
Chen echoes the other candidates when he says the controller’s core job is to control government spending and provide oversight. He said he was best suited for the job because of his political background and experience analyzing financial systems. And he’s not a Democrat.
“I’m really the only candidate who is truly independent in this position from the rest of what I call the one-party monopoly in Sacramento,” Chen said. “I think with that independence of being able to really call balls and shots, really being able to ask tough questions and demand answers, I think I’m uniquely suited to play that role .”
The public policy expert, who was a top adviser to Republican Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign, now teaches at Stanford University. He said he knew his chances of winning November’s election in a one-on-one race with a Democrat were slim, but he didn’t think it was impossible.
With about $2 million in cash in his campaign account, Chen is likely to make a very focused effort to win over a segment of Democrats and a majority of non-party voters ahead of the general election with the message that California is moving in the wrong direction and needs fiscal Independence that only he can guarantee.
“We are not blind to the challenge we face,” Chen said. “It’s a very expensive country. We will be resource constrained. So we have to make sure that our message really gets across.”
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-03/democrats-will-be-chasing-republican-lanhee-chen-in-california-controllers-race 2022 California primary election: Inside controller’s race