Republican Lanhee Chen will face Democrat Malia M. Cohen Tuesday to become California’s next controller, the state’s chief fiscal officer responsible for accountability and disbursement of its financial resources and the person who independently audits government agencies.
Incumbent Betty T. Yee is barred from seeking re-election because of term limits.
Chen announced his candidacy July 6, 2021, pledging to be “a fighter in the state controller’s office who will be a check on the one-party monopoly in Sacramento, expose fraud and waste in government, and ensure that we can account for every penny that our state spends.”
“The controller is California’s independent fiscal watchdog, the person who makes sure that taxpayer money is spent as we’re told it will be,” Chen told City News Service. “But that’s not happening now. In fact, the controller can’t even tell us where she sent over $300 billion in payments in 2018 alone.”
Chen said he is qualified to be controller because he is the only candidate “who combines experience in policy-making, education and business with a strong belief in the values of fiscal responsibility, transparency, and independence.”
Chen said if elected he would “implement a fully machine-readable, searchable, line-by-line accounting of all state spending.”
“California is, according to some analysts, the only state in the country that does not offer this level of transparency to our residents,” said Chen, who is on leave as director of domestic policy studies of Stanford University’s Public Policy Program and is a fellow in American public policy studies at the university’s Hoover Institution, its public policy think tank.
“Currently, our state furnishes massive amounts of information that is very hard to find and understand in meaningful ways. The state’s billion-dollar effort to provide financial transparency on a unified platform, called Fi$Cal, is over-budget, chronically late, and won’t even provide full functionality or transparency into California’s finances once it is complete,” he charged.
“Our next controller must lead an effort to furnish fiscal information in a way that allows taxpayers to determine how well their money is being spent in easily searchable ways that compare California to other states or over time on important criteria.”
Cohen, the chair of the California Board of Equalization — which administers tax, fee and appellate programs to support state and local government — has pledged that if elected, she would “rethink the details and align our budget priorities with our values.”
Cohen said she would “put my office’s weight behind” California’s Commission on the Status of Women and Girls Pay Equity Task Force, “helping Californians understand their rights and elevating the task force’s Pay Equity Pledge, sponsoring business roundtables and holding them accountable for action.”
“As our office conducts its audits of state government agencies, I’ll ensure that the state is meeting its promises and complying fully with the California Fair Pay Act, starting with a review of the Controller’s Office.”
Cohen has also pledged to use the office’s audit function to ensure that companies claiming the research and development tax credit “are doing the work and creating the quality jobs as part of the promised research.”
The controller serves on 70 boards and commissions with authority ranging from state public land management to crime victim compensation, and is a member of numerous financing authorities, as well as fiscal and financial oversight entities including the Franchise Tax Board and Board of Equalization.
The State Lands Commission is among those commissions. As a member of that commission, Cohen said would work she work “toward using our public lands for renewable energy, ending our dependence on oil and gas.”
“I will work hand-in-hand to hold current lease holders to the highest possible standards of environmental stewardship and seek opportunities to transition away from extraction policy,” Cohen said.
Chen finished first in the June primary with 37.2% of the vote. He was the lone Republican in a six-candidate field that also consisted of four Democrats and a Green Party candidate. Cohen was second with 22.7%.
Chen is seeking to be the first Republican elected to statewide office in California since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected governor and Steve Poizner was elected insurance commissioner. He would be the first Republican controller since Houston Flournoy, who served from 1967-75.
Chen was policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, serving as Romney’s chief policy adviser, a senior strategist on the campaign and the person responsible for developing the campaign’s domestic and foreign policy, according to his Stanford University biography.
Chen was a senior appointee at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration. He was appointed to the Social Security Advisory Board by then-President Barack Obama in 2013, serving until 2018.
Chen received bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and law degrees from Harvard University. He is the son of immigrants from Taiwan.
Cohen has been a member of the Board of Equalization since 2019, its first Black female member. She would be California’s first Black controller. Cohen was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2011-19.
She received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University and a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University.