In a rare and perhaps unprecedented accomplishment in modern times, a Republican statewide political candidate earned the endorsement of every major newspaper in California. His name is Lanhee Chen, and he is running for state controller, an elected office that is nearly as powerful as the governor’s because it has various instruments with which to hold government accountable to taxpayers.
Some such instruments are the authority to audit government spending and expose waste by providing taxpayers with accurate and timely financial disclosures. But California’s current controller, Democrat Betty Yee, has been unwilling or unable to hold state agencies accountable. Her office has not produced an annual comprehensive financial report since the statement for the fiscal year ending in June 2020. To put this in perspective, imagine a publicly held company that is two years delinquent in producing its annual 10-K report. Its last report earned modified auditor opinions of “qualified” and “disclaimer of opinion”, meaning there were both material and pervasive misstatements. For public companies, such reporting could deal a death blow, causing a crash in stock price and losing shareholder confidence. Yet this is exactly what’s going on with California’s finances, and the state is unlikely to release its 2020–2021 financials before the midterm election.
In response, major news outlets throughout California — from the Los Angeles Times to the San Francisco Chronicle — have endorsed Chen, a fiscal advisor who has deep expertise in financial and quantitative analysis. They tout Chen’s qualifications, but they also insist that a controller with the same party affiliation as the party in power would present a conflict of interest.
Chen says he is seeking the controller role because he’s itching to put his problem-solving skills to work for a state suffering from the highest gas prices and poverty rate in the country, coupled with record homelessness and crime. These outcomes occurred despite record state tax revenues generated from capital gains before and during the pandemic. Chen contends that the problems can be traced to an inept and bloated government tribe more motivated by justifying their jobs than being accountable to taxpayers, with no party outsiders to check their performance.
In deciding who deserves their vote for state controller, Chen said taxpayers should ask themselves, “Why does the state controller role exist? Does it exist to protect taxpayers’ money or government jobs?” The answer is the former, according to the controller’s website.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen grew up in Rowland Heights, a city in the Los Angeles area comprising 90% Asians and Hispanics, and one that borders Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Considered a prodigy, Chen said he was fortunate to have gotten into Harvard but jokes that he probably “overstayed his welcome” by earning four degrees there, including a JD and Ph.D. On these merits, he earned the opportunity to serve as a top advisor to 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but also did not waver when former president Barack Obama, Romney’s 2012 opponent, asked him to serve on the Social Security Advisory Board.
As a Stanford educator, Chen is a mentor to college students and through his startup investments has backed entrepreneurs who want to turn their ideas into concrete, job-creating businesses. He did not harbor ambitions of becoming a politician but became increasingly alarmed when he struggled to explain to his kids why so many people were homeless in California.
“My parents built a life here as first-generation immigrants who worked really hard, and that gave me the opportunity to focus on my education, which in turn gave me economic opportunity and mobility,” Chen shared. But despite record state spending on education and homelessness, California’s students have performed progressively worse, and more people are living on the streets, which means “the American dream is slipping away.” Chen recalls hearing a voter complain, “They gave us a minimum wage raise but then doubled the price of gas,” an indication of how reckless and ineffective California’s economic policies have been. Simply “throwing money at problems makes the politicians’ jobs easier” but does not help our citizens, Chen said.
In Chen’s leap from policy to politics, he outperformed all rivals in the California jungle primary by placing first with 37% of the total vote share.
To succeed termed-out Yee, California’s Democratic party put up Malia Cohen, a tax assessor and collector tied to the California Board of Equalization, a scandal-ridden tax agency stripped of much of its power a few years ago but one which remains responsible for collecting several types of taxes. Cohen has no observable financial expertise and has been ridiculed for her personal financial mismanagement, including failing to file business tax returns, getting her business license suspended, and deliberately defaulting on her mortgage payments when she was not facing financial hardship.
Cohen perceives the controller job as something resembling group therapy, saying if she found something “glaring” or “embarrassing” in an audit, she’d solve the problem by having an “honest conversation.”
By contrast, Chen has proven adept at finances by raising more cash than Cohen in a state where Democrats have a 2 to 1 registration advantage over Republicans. Proportionately, Chen has spent significantly less than his opponent, going into the final days of the race with a 10 to 1 cash advantage. His supporters say they are not surprised: Chen harnesses the efforts of an army of volunteers, maintains a lean and efficient campaign staff, eats fast food on the road, and stays with family rather than in fancy hotels whenever possible on the campaign trail. His demonstrated accountability and providence have won him the loyalty of his supporters, who insist that the best way to measure how he would perform as controller is to look at his performance as a candidate.
Chen put himself forward for a job he doesn’t need. His supporters urge California voters to put partisanship aside and vote for Chen for state controller on November 8.