Meet the Republican who could upset California’s Democratic monopoly
By Jason Willick
September 30, 2022
No Republican has won election to any of California’s nine partisan statewide offices for 16 years, and the GOP hasn’t controlled either house of the legislature for more than a quarter-century. But when Lanhee J. Chen was growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s, the state that had helped catapult Ronald Reagan to the presidency was still politically competitive.
Chen, 44, thinks it can be competitive again — at least when the focus is state governance rather than national culture wars. The top policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a fellow (on leave) at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Chen is running as a Republican to be controller, California’s chief fiscal officer.
He has reasons for optimism, having come out first in the June “jungle primary” with 37 percent of the vote, outraised his general election opponent, Democrat Malia Cohen, and won the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. The Chen campaign’s internal polling shows 57 percent of Californians would consider voting for a Republican controller candidate.
According to Chen, the state is headed for “probably a $30 billion deficit within a few fiscal years.” He added that “there is very little effort made, certainly by this governor, to inform people about the implications of a large surplus going into a large deficit” for the state’s ability to solve problems. In 2011, Chen noted, California’s controller “refused to pay the legislature because they didn’t produce a truly balanced budget.”
The controller’s most important power is auditing public expenditures. Chen wants to understand how California paid $20 billion in fraudulent unemployment benefits during the pandemic. He also says there “hasn’t been any systematic effort” to keep track of the billions in pandemic aid Washington sent to Sacramento to support schools.
Chen is skeptical of politically motivated investing strategies that public pensions are under increasing pressure to adopt (California’s teacher and state-employee pensions funds manage more than $700 billion). But unlike conservative politicians who cast their critique of “woke capital” in culture war terms, Chen points to the pragmatic fiscal risks. Issuing social statements through pension investments can make it harder for California to meet its underfunded obligations to civil servants, and open the door to cronyism, he said, if “somebody doesn’t like one company … for whatever reason.”
A Chen controllership could strike a blow for moderation — in California and the country. It would shine a light on the fiscal stewardship practiced by the “San Francisco clan” that controls America’s most populous state. The presidentially inclined Newsom, Chen said, “has other ambitions, and he probably doesn’t want anybody who’s going to be a fly in the ointment.”