/ March 14, 2022

Column: A Republican controller might just be what California needs – Joe Mathews

In case you missed it, columnist Joe Mathews laid out why California needs a tough, independent-minded Controller, and why Lanhee Chen would be a great fit for the job. You can read more from his column below.

A Republican controller might just be what California needs
By Joe Mathews
March 13, 2022

In the exclusively Democratic constellation of California statewide officials, how many places are there for a Republican star?

Maybe one.

That singular spot is the State Controller’s Office. Here’s a secret that California’s ruling elites don’t want you to know: California’s controller has vast, untapped powers to oversee, audit and prod the state’s dysfunctional government. Which is why powerful interests in Sacramento have long made sure they have a reliable ally in the job.

The controller, however, could become a major force for turning California’s aspirations into effective programs. It requires someone smart, responsible, dogged — and resolutely independent of the Democratic power structure.

In our two-party system, such a person is likely to be — deep breath — a Republican. In this boring election year, a potential contender has emerged.

Let me be clear. While your columnist is a nonpartisan, I deeply respect Californians’ profound aversion to electing Republicans, who in recent years have treated Californians like traitors and enemies, attacking our elections, our environmental laws and our undocumented neighbors.

But the status quo is broken. California’s Democratic rulers have struggled with basic management and oversight, and progressive policies aren’t producing progressive outcomes. The billions we’ve devoted to homelessness haven’t ended that crisis. Higher spending on health and education aren’t making us much healthier or smarter. And scandals have plagued many agencies, most notably the Employment Development Department.

Electing an effective state controller who isn’t on Team Democrat might shake up this dynamic.

The controller is often described as California’s chief fiscal officer, controlling and disbursing all state funds. But the position is more than that. The controller has broad authority to audit and oversee state spending and serves on 70-plus state boards and commissions, including our two giant state pension funds. These overlapping roles mean a controller could be a force for transparency and reform, identifying solutions to potential management failures.

Is there really a Republican smart and skilled enough to seize the opportunity?

Lanhee Chen, a Stanford scholar with four degrees from Harvard, including a law degree and a doctorate in political science, is undoubtedly brainy enough to do it. He was a top official at the Department of Health and Human Services during George W. Bush’s presidency and became a member of the independent Social Security Advisory Board during the Obama administration. His political experience includes a stint as policy director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, and he’s been an investment firm partner and board chair of a Northern California health system.

He’s not the perfect candidate — I dream of a controller who investigated Mafia finances before turning around poorly managed government agencies. But Chen can speak the Democrats’ language, a skill that would be crucial to getting other politicians to follow his recommendations. At the California Economic Summit in Monterey last fall, he couched a Republican argument for supporting small businesses in the terms of diversity and equity that obsess Democrats.

After watching that performance, I asked him to lunch.

We met at a Middle Eastern place in Mountain View. Chen and I are both Southern Californians and former San Gabriel Valley kids in our 40s with fancy educations. Our mutual friends routinely sing his personal praises (while sometimes shaking their heads at his Republicanism). After reminiscing about the Puente Hills Mall and lamenting the sorry state of the Lakers, we fell into a detailed technocratic conversation about the state.

Chen avoided bombast, was humble about the complexity of what might face him as controller and recognized the odds against him winning the office, given his party affiliation and lack of independent wealth. When I asked why he wasn’t running for governor, he said he thought that, realistically, a Republican in California had the best chance to make a constructive impact in the controller’s role.

I agree, but victory remains a long shot. Los Angeles city Controller Ron Galperin is a candidate on the Democratic side. And the Democratic establishment is backing former San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, who would be a historic selection (the first Black woman to be controller). A smart consensus builder, she’d be perfect for many elected jobs — except this one.

The most effective controller won’t be a team player. A better bet on the left could be state Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda, who has a long history of clashing with his own party’s labor interests and challenging progressive fantasies. His extensive experience in state and local government — including as senior adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown — includes service on various auditing committees.

But would he be as independent as an actual Republican?

That question, of course, is hypothetical. At least until the elections arrive, and we learn if Californians, already tired of holding their noses at state government’s problems, can hold their noses long enough to elect a Republican who might be able to help.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

Read more here.

Matt Ciepielowski
Campaign Manager, Chen for Controller