The only place California could need a Republican
In California’s exclusively Democratic constellation of state officials, how many places are there for a Republican star?
This singular place is the state comptroller’s office. Here’s a secret California’s ruling elites don’t want you to know: The California comptroller has vast, untapped powers to oversee, audit and stimulate California’s dysfunctional government. That’s why powerful statewide interests usually make sure they have a reliable ally in the works.
The Comptroller, however, could be a major force in turning California’s aspirations into effective programs. But that would require someone exceptionally smart, stubborn, and independent from the Democratic Party.
In our two-party system, such a person is likely to be – deep breath – a Republican. And a potential competitor has emerged.
Let’s be clear. Although your columnist is nonpartisan, I deeply respect California’s aversion to election by Republicans, who in recent years have treated Californians as enemies, attacking our elections, our environmental laws, and our undocumented neighbors.
But the status quo is broken. Democratic leaders in California have struggled with grassroots management and oversight. The billions we have spent on homelessness have not ended this crisis. Higher spending on health and education doesn’t make us much healthier or smarter. And scandals plagued many departments.
The election of an effective state comptroller who is not part of the Democratic team could upset this dynamic.
The comptroller is often described as California’s chief financial officer, controlling and disbursing all state funds. But the comptroller also has broad authority to audit and oversee state spending and sits on more than 70 state boards and commissions, including our two giant state pension funds. These overlapping roles could make the good comptroller a force for transparency, reform and identifying solutions to management failures.
Is there really a Republican who can seize the opportunity?
May be. Lanhee Chen, a Stanford scholar with four Harvard degrees, is undoubtedly smart enough to do just that. He was 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 during the Obama administration. His political experience includes a stint as policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, and he was a partner in an investment firm and chairman of the board of a Northern California health care system. .
He’s not the ideal candidate – I dream of a comptroller who investigated mob finances before redressing mismanaged government agencies. But Chen can 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 at a Middle Eastern location in Mountain View and got along great. Chen and I are both former San Gabriel Valley kids in our 40s. After bringing up the Puente Hills Mall, we fell into a detailed technocratic conversation about the state.
Chen avoided bombast, was humble about the complexity of what he would face as a controller, and acknowledged the chances of him winning a position. When I asked why he wasn’t running for governor, he said that realistically a California Republican had the best chance of having a constructive impact as comptroller.
I agree, but victory is still a long shot. The Democratic establishment backs former San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen, a smart consensus builder who would be ideal for many elected positions — but not this one.
An effective controller will not be a team player. A better bet among Democrats might be State Sen. Steve Glazer, who clashed with his labor interests and challenged progressive fantasies.
But would he be as independent as a true Republican?
This question is hypothetical, until election season, when we learn whether Californians, tired of holding their noses over the problems of state government, will hold their noses and elect a Republican.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.