Endorsement: Lanhee Chen for California Controller – LA TIMES
A wonky but important elected office, the state controller is California’s fiscal watchdog — the person who cuts the checks that keep government running and also holds the power to audit agencies that spend state funds.
Voters will pick a new controller this year because Betty Yee, the current controller, is termed out after eight years on the job. Californians have several smart candidates to choose from on the June 7 ballot, including Democrats Ron Galperin, controller for the city of Los Angeles; Malia Cohen, a Board of Equalization member from San Francisco; Steve Glazer, a state senator from the Bay Area city of Orinda; and Republican Lanhee Chen, a public policy expert who teaches at Stanford University.
Among this strong field, we believe Chen is the best choice for this position. Why? Because he is a sharp thinker with experience analyzing large financial systems, and because the controller should be as independent from the party in power as possible.
Democrats control state government and we support their priorities to combat climate change, preserve abortion rights and advance economic and racial justice. But California’s governance is falling short of its ideals. And that’s despite several years of strong revenue that have pumped billions more into education, healthcare and alleviating homelessness. Yet too few students can read at grade level, too many Medi-Cal patients can’t see a doctor and too many people sleep on the streets.
California needs a fiscal watchdog who will examine why state spending has not yielded better results, and point the way toward necessary improvements. The most prominent Democrats in this race seem unlikely to exhibit the independence that this moment demands of the next controller.
Cohen is a rising star in the California Democratic Party with strong ties to powerful politicians. Endorsed by the party, most statewide officials and dozens of lawmakers, she is positioned to work well with the Democrats who run the state. But California will benefit more from a controller who will stand up to them. Galperin has spent two terms as L.A.’s controller, and certainly knows the job. But he has not been as aggressive as he could have been. Glazer is the Democrat most likely to demonstrate political independence. As a legislator, he’s bucked Democratic leadership by voting against a gas tax increase in 2017 and against a raise for prison guards in 2021. With a career in California politics that dates back to his work for Jerry Brown in the 1970s, Glazer knows the ins and outs of state government.
However, it’s time for a fresh lens. Chen’s impressive resume includes degrees from Harvard in law and political science, as well as work in government, politics, academia and business. Chen was nominated to the Social Security Advisory Board by President Obama, and served on it for four years. He was policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. He now leads the board of directors of a nonprofit healthcare system in the Bay Area, teaches public policy at Stanford, advises businesses and government clients as a consultant, and invests in early-stage companies.
Many Californians will balk at the idea of voting for a Republican. That’s understandable because the conspiracy-fueled wing of the GOP has grown too powerful under the influence of former President Trump and his litany of lies. But one way to restore some sanity to the GOP is to elevate Republicans, like Chen, who operate in the world of facts. Chen would not tell us whom he voted for in the 2020 presidential race, but he is unequivocal in stating that the election was legitimate, that Joe Biden won and that Trump has been untruthful in describing it otherwise.
Chen demonstrates a clear understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the controller’s office — and vowed he will not use it as a perch to push a partisan agenda. He pledges to use the audit power to scrutinize spending and give programs a letter grade based on their effectiveness, recognizing that the office cannot decide how much money the state spends. Nor can the controller pass new laws or change existing ones. Those responsibilities are held by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and the governor — so any policy or budget proposals Chen might want to advance would have to go through them.
The controller can bring greater transparency to how the state spends money by auditing state agencies and local governments, which helps the public hold officials accountable. And with a seat on dozens of boards and commissions, the controller has a hand in overseeing state pension funds as well as financing authorities that issue bonds to build schools, hospitals and transportation projects — though the controller is just one vote on a larger panel.
In other words, the controller has no power to independently advance a policy agenda. But the controller does have the power to help us understand why the state is not making more progress on the goals leaders have established. That’s what California needs right now, and Chen is the best candidate for the job.