Can California’s state comptroller be independent of the democratic power structure?


Question: In California’s all-Democrat constellation of state officials, how many places are there for a Republican star to fit in?

Answer: One.


This singular place is the state comptroller’s office. If you don’t know anything about the job or can’t name who the job is, you’re not alone. For decades, the comptroller was just another lowly elected office filled by forgettable establishment politicians.

But here’s a secret California’s ruling elites don’t want you to know: The Comptroller’s Office has sweeping and often untapped powers to oversee, audit and stimulate California’s dysfunctional government. That’s why civil servants’ unions and other interest groups have long worked to ensure that a reliable ally lands the job.

The Comptroller, however, could become a major force in turning California’s aspirations into effective programs. It requires someone smart, responsible, stubborn, and staunchly independent of the Democratic power structure.

In our two-party system, such a person is likely to be – at full breath – a Republican. And in this otherwise boring election year, as the governor navigates his way to re-election, a potential nominee has emerged. The 2022 State Comptroller campaign might actually be a race to watch.

Let me be clear. Although your columnist is a nonpartisan and not a Democrat, he understands and respects Californians’ deep aversion to electing Republicans, who have not won statewide office since 2006. he era of Trump, the Republican Party has treated Californians as 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 have dominated our politics for more than a century, another 100 years of Democratic dominance would do nothing more than balance the books.

That said, even the most partisan Democrats should recognize that making our government a political monoculture is not healthy. There are also some hard math: 5.3 million Californians are registered Republicans who deserve Democratic representation, even if their party seems anti-democracy right now.

But above all, the status quo is broken. Democratic state leaders have struggled with management and oversight, too often failing to turn progressive policies into real progress. The billions we have spent on homelessness have not ended this crisis. Huge and worthwhile increases in spending on access to health and education have not made the state much healthier or smarter. And scandals and corruption have plagued many departments, including employment development. Worse still, the public became convinced that such problems might never be solved.

Electing an effective state comptroller who is not on the Democratic team may be the easiest way to shake that dynamic.

The Comptroller could become a major force in turning California’s aspirations into effective programs – if he was smart, stubborn and independent of the Democratic Party.

The comptroller is often described as California’s chief financial officer, controlling and disbursing all state funds. But the position is more than that. The comptroller sits on some 70 state boards and commissions, including the Franchise Tax Board and the Equalization Board, as well as our two giant state pension funds. The Comptroller also has broad authority to oversee and publicize tax data and actions of local governments, where federal and state money is used.

All of these overlapping roles provide an opportunity for a comptroller to be California’s true public watchdog and a force for transparency and reform. A strong controller could detect fraud while helping to identify solutions to persistent management and tax failures.

Is there a Republican smart and competent enough to seize the opportunity? This year, for the first time in a long time, the answer may be yes.

Lanhee Chen, a Stanford scholar in domestic politics and democracy with four degrees from Harvard, including a law degree and a doctorate in political science, is undoubtedly smart enough to do just that. He has a background in governance – he served as a senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush and became a member of the Independent Social Security Advisory Council under the Obama administration. His political experience includes a stint as policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, and in the private sector he was a partner in an investment firm and chaired the board of a health care system. from northern California.

He’s not the ideal candidate – I dream of a comptroller who investigated mob finances before straightening out mismanaged businesses and government agencies. But Chen has the connections to assemble a new team and the political savvy to speak the language of the Democrats, a skill that would be crucial in getting other politicians to follow his recommendations. At the California Economic Summit in Monterey last fall, he made a Republican case for supporting small businesses on the diversity and equity that Democrats obsess over.

After watching this show, I invited him to lunch.

We met in a Middle Eastern location in Mountain View. Chen and I are both former San Gabriel Valley kids in our 40s with sophisticated upbringings. Our mutual friends regularly sing his personal praises (while occasionally shaking their heads at his republicanism). After talking about the Puente Hills Mall and lamenting the sad 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 acknowledged the chances of him winning the job, given his party affiliation and lack of wealth. independent. When I asked why he wasn’t running for governor, he said he thought realistically a California Republican had the best chance of making a constructive impact in the role of comptroller.

I agree, but victory is still a long shot. Los Angeles City Comptroller Ron Galperin is running for the Democratic side. And the Democratic establishment backs former San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen, who would be a historic selection (the first black woman to be a controller). A clever consensus builder, she would be perfect for many elected positions, except this one.

The most effective controller will not be a team player. A better bet on the left might 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 serving as a senior adviser to Governor Jerry Brown, includes service on various audit committees.

But would he be as independent as a true Republican?

This question, of course, is hypothetical. At least until the election rolls around, and we learn if Californians, already tired of holding their noses over the problems of state government, can hold their noses long enough to elect a Republican who might be in able to help.


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