Question: In the exclusively Democratic constellation of California statewide officials, how many places are there where a Republican star might fit?
That singular spot is the State Controller’s Office. If you don’t know anything about the position or can’t name who holds it, you are not alone. For decades, the controller has been just another down-ballot elected position, occupied by forgettable establishment politicians.
But here’s a secret that California’s ruling elites don’t want you to know: the controller’s office has vast and often untapped powers to oversee, audit, and prod California’s dysfunctional government. Which is why public employee unions and other interest groups have long worked to ensure that a reliable ally wins 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. And in this otherwise boring election year, with the governor sailing to reelection, a potential contender has emerged. The 2022 state controller campaign might actually be a race worth watching.
Let me be clear. While your columnist is a non-partisan, and not a Democrat, he understands and respects Californians’ profound aversion to electing Republicans, who have not won a statewide office since 2006. In the Trump era, the Republican party has treated Californians like traitors and enemies, preferring to attack our elections, our environmental laws and our undocumented neighbors, instead of meeting our needs or seeking our votes. And since Republicans dominated our politics for more than a century, another 100 years of Democratic dominance would do nothing more than balance the books.
All that said, even the most partisan of Democrats should acknowledge that making our government a political monoculture isn’t healthy. There’s also hard math: 5.3 million Californians are registered Republicans who deserve democratic representation, even if their party seems hostile to democracy right now.
But most of all, the status quo is broken. The state’s Democratic rulers have struggled with management and oversight, too often failing to turn progressive policies into actual progress. The billions we’ve devoted to homelessness haven’t ended that crisis. Huge and worthy spending increases on health access and education haven’t made the state much healthier or smarter. And scandals and corruption have plagued many departments, most notably employment development. Worst of all, the public has become convinced that such problems may never be fixed.
Electing an effective state controller who isn’t on Team Democrat may be the easiest way to 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 serves on 70-some state boards and commissions, including the Franchise Tax Board and the Board of Equalization, and our two giant state pension funds. The controller also has broad authority to oversee and make public the fiscal data and actions of local governments, where federal and state money are used.
All these overlapping roles provides an opportunity for a controller to be California’s true public watchdog and a force for transparency and reform. A strong controller could find fraud while also helping identify solutions to persistent management and fiscal failures.
Is there a Republican smart and skilled enough to seize the opportunity? This year, for the first time in a long time, it’s possible the answer is yes.
Lanhee Chen, a Stanford scholar of domestic policy and democracy, with four degrees from Harvard, including a law degree and a PhD in political science, is undoubtedly brainy enough to do it. He’s got governing experience—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 in the private sector, he’s been a partner at an investment firm, and chaired the board 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 companies and government agencies. But Chen has the connections to build a new team and the political savvy to 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 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 Senator Steve Glazer, 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 advisor 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.