The office of state controller is one of the least talked about in California politics but may be the most interesting race in the June 7 primary.
Four Democrats and one Republican are vying to land one of the top two spots on Tuesday, along with a Green Party candidate, to ultimately compete in the November election to become the state’s independent fiscal watchdog.
The incumbent, Controller Betty Yee, will leave the post in January due to term limits.
The slate all but guarantees GOP voters will rally behind their party’s candidate, Lanhee Chen, providing the votes the fiscal advisor and educator needs to advance to the general election. But without a clear favorite among Democrats, the candidate who will face off against Chen remains a question mark.
“Chen is going to be the top vote getter,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant. “Amongst the Democrats, it’s a race for name identification, and often that goes to whoever has the most money spent on their behalf.”
Democrat Yvonne Yiu, a member of the Monterey Park City Council, is winning the money race by funding her own campaign.
A former financial advisor and founder of a management firm, Yiu has contributed $5.7 million of the nearly $6.1 million she’s raised. Most of her spending has been on statewide television advertising, according to recent campaign finance filings.
As a relative newcomer to public service who joined the city council in 2020, Yiu is relying on the ads to overcome the same problem all of the candidates face: Most voters don’t know who they are.
In an ad titled “Yiu for You,” she is described as the only candidate “with the experience and expertise to save taxpayers money,” touting her experience from working for more than 25 years in finance. She said she decided to fund her own campaign after political insiders, party delegates and special interest groups discounted her candidacy.
“If I put my own money into the race, that makes me independent and the voters will never have questions about whether I have their best interests at heart because I’m not taking lobbyists’ money and money from special interest groups,” Yiu said in an interview.
The controller’s race typically isn’t a big draw for political donors, leaving the rest of the Democratic field looking for ways to get the best bang for their more limited campaign bucks.
State Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat with a long history of working in government and politics, has raised more than $2.7 million, with the California Chamber of Commerce, police officers, almond growers and dentists among his top donors. Campaign filings show a lot of his money was spent on slate mailers, among the least expensive and easiest ways to get his name in front of voters.
The controller is the chief fiscal officer for California and is responsible for the disbursement of all state funds. Like the other Democrats in the race, Glazer says he’ll have no problem auditing the effectiveness and efficiency of government programs and, when necessary, bucking his own party.
“I have a long record of experience and knowledge about how government works and also willingness to take on special interests as well as my party when I think they’re not thinking things all the way through or performing up to the highest standard,” said Glazer.
Glazer voted against Democrats’ gas tax increase in the Senate five years ago — a move that forced then-Gov. Jerry Brown, whom Glazer once served as a senior advisor, and legislative leaders to persuade one Republican senator to support the $5.2-billion annual 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 receive the support of the California Democratic Party. Cohen said party delegates have been big supporters of her campaign and joined phone banking efforts, but the party’s endorsement will be a bigger boon if she advances beyond the primary.
As the first Black woman elected to the oversight board of the state tax collection agency, the San Francisco native describes herself as an advocate for equity who works to hold corporations accountable for paying their fair share of taxes.
“I am firmly rooted and grounded in this kind of old notion that the world should be fair,” Cohen said. “There are a lot of critical initiatives that are being implemented and I just want to be a check on it.”
Cohen has raised $1.4 million for her campaign, while an independent expenditure committee funded by teachers unions and the state council of the Service Employees International Union brought in nearly $900,000, according to recent campaign reports.
She’s spent most of her money on television advertising in the Bay Area and Sacramento, hoping a reminder of her record can help turn out voters who might be familiar with her.
Ron Galperin is the only candidate in the race with a controller title after spending nine years in the job for the city of Los Angeles — a ballot designation that could give him a boost in the election.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to really make a difference in the controller’s office and I have the experience to do so, having done it for the city of L.A.,” Galperin said. “I think the advantage that I have is having done this job.”
Part of Galperin’s pitch is more government transparency, which he said he helped bring to L.A. through the creation of online dashboards to track the city’s real-time spending for different financial initiatives.
Galperin has less to keep track of in his own campaign, which has raised around $1 million. Trade unions are his biggest donors.
Laura Wells, a Green Party candidate, has run for several offices in recent years including a campaign for governor in 2010. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, she said she supports the creation of a public bank to help counter the high costs of municipalities borrowing from Wall Street firms.
The fragmented nature of the rest of the field of controller candidates means that Chen, the lone Republican, is nearly guaranteed to come out on top.
Chen mirrors the other candidates when he says the controller’s core responsibility is to be a check on government spending and provide oversight. He said he’s best suited to the job because of his policy background and experience analyzing financial systems. And he’s not a Democrat.
“I’m really the only candidate that is in that position to be truly independent from the rest of the what I call the one-party monopoly in Sacramento,” Chen said. “I think having that independence to really be able to call balls and strikes, to really be able to ask tough questions and demand answers, I think that I’m uniquely suited to play that role.”
The public policy specialist, who was a top advisor to Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign, now teaches at Stanford University. He said he knows that his odds of winning the November election in a one-on-one race with a Democrat are tough, but he doesn’t believe it to be impossible.
With around $2 million in cash in his campaign account, Chen is likely to launch a very targeted effort to win over a sliver of Democrats and a majority of unaffiliated voters in the run-up to the general election with the message that California is moving in the wrong direction and needs fiscal independence that only he can ensure.
“We’re not blind to the challenge we face,” Chen said. “It’s a very expensive state. We are going to be resource-constrained. So we’re going to have to go and make sure our message is really hitting the target.”