Guide for California controller election: Lanhee Chen vs. Malia Cohen

Separate photos of a man and a woman.
California controller candidates Lanhee Chen, left, and Malia Cohen.
(Courtesy photos)

The race for state controller rarely excites voters, but it may be the most interesting one in the November election.

For the first time since 2006, a Republican candidate has a chance of winning a statewide political contest in California. It’s still an uphill battle for Lanhee Chen, a Republican in a state where party registration favors Democrats by almost a 2-1 margin.

Democrat Malia Cohen, chair of the state Board of Equalization, has the odds in her favor.


The controller is the chief fiscal officer for California and is responsible for the disbursement of state funds. Both candidates say they would use the post to act as a financial watchdog for the state.

This controller’s race is the only open statewide race this year in California. The incumbent, Betty Yee, will leave the post in January because of term limits.

For as long as anyone can remember, pundits have used the ‘midterm’ label for elections halfway between presidential elections. But what does it mean?


Who are the candidates?

Lanhee Chen is a public policy specialist who was a top advisor to Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. He said he knows that his odds of winning the November election in a one-on-one race with a Democrat are tough, but he doesn’t believe it to be impossible.

Chen, who had earned degrees in law and political science from Harvard University, was nominated to the Social Security Advisory Board by President Obama and served on the panel for four years. He now leads the board of directors of a nonprofit healthcare system in the Bay Area, teaches public policy at Stanford, advises businesses and government clients as a consultant, and invests in early-stage companies.

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Malia Cohen is a member of the Board of Equalization and a progressive. As the first Black woman elected to the oversight board of the state tax collection agency, the San Francisco native describes herself as an advocate for equity.


Before winning election to the Board of Equalization in 2019, Cohen served eight years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Cohen takes on Chen with the support of the California Democratic Party and labor unions, but she trails behind her GOP rival in fundraising.


Where Chen and Cohen stand on the mission of state controller

Cohen describes herself as a career public servant and says how the state spends money is a statement of its values.

“I am firmly rooted and grounded in this kind of old notion that the world should be fair,” Cohen said.

“I believe that California needs a controller that will prioritize working families, someone who knows how to get things done at a state level and also that will serve as an independent voice for spending, a budget hawk.”

Chen similarly believes the controller’s core responsibility is to be a check on government spending. He said he’s best suited to the job because of his policy background and experience analyzing financial systems. And he’s not a Democrat.


“I’m really the only candidate that is in that position to be truly independent from the rest of the what I call the one-party monopoly in Sacramento,” Chen said. “I think having that independence to really be able to call balls and strikes, to really be able to ask tough questions and demand answers, I think that I’m uniquely suited to play that role.”


Where Cohen and Chen stand on the issue of homelessness

Cohen said she will use the auditing powers of her office to determine how the billions of dollars the state is investing on homelessness initiatives is addressing the crisis.

“People see and they are experiencing the homeless crisis no matter where you go in the state of California,” Cohen said. “They see tax dollars going out of their pocket, but the homeless crisis still persisting. They see the people on the street. I just talk about how an audit would be able to help them gather answers into these homeless programs that are underway. They’re relatively new and they have a high dollar, and an audit would tell us whether we’re doing a good job or a poor job.”

Chen also has said he would use the audit process to provide transparency into government spending on homelessness, which he says has gotten only worse with more funding.


“The state controller is the person responsible for making sure taxpayer money, our money, is spent as we’re told it will be,” he said in a video shot near an encampment in Los Angeles this year. “We need accountability for the money we’ve spent on homelessness to be able to figure out what programs are working and which ones unfortunately aren’t, so we can make the situation better, so we can finally solve this problem once and for all.”

Chen also proposed giving California programs letter grades to assess how taxpayer dollars are being used.


Past coverage

Malia Cohen is facing scrutiny over how she has managed her personal finances following the recent suspension of her business license for unpaid taxes and the foreclosure of her San Francisco condo more than a decade ago.

Oct. 5, 2022

As the only Republican in the race, Lanhee Chen is all but guaranteed to advance from the June 7 primary for California controller.

June 3, 2022

The current state controller, Betty Yee, has served two four-year terms and can’t run again. Four Democrats’ names will appear on the June 7 ballot, alongside a single Republican and a member of the Green Party.

June 7, 2022


L.A. Times editorial board’s endorsements

The Times’ editorial page publishes endorsements based on candidate interviews and independent reporting. The editorial board operates independently of the newsroom — reporters covering these races have no say in the endorsements.

The L.A. Times’ editorial board endorsements for statewide ballot measures, elected offices in Los Angeles city and county, L.A. Unified School District board, L.A. county superior court, statewide offices, the state Legislature and U.S. House and Senate seats.


How and where to vote

Ballots will be in the mail to all 22 million registered voters in the state no later than Oct. 10. Californians can return ballots by mail, drop them at collection boxes or turn them in at voting centers. They can also cast ballots early at voting centers or wait until Nov. 8 to vote at their neighborhood polling places.

Californians can register to vote or check their status at


Here’s how to vote in the California midterm election, how to register, what to do if you didn’t get mail ballot or if you made a mistake on your ballot.


Follow more election coverage

California voters head to the polls Nov. 8 to vote for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, controller, treasurer, attorney general, and races for U.S. representative in Congress, state senator and assemblymember. Local races include who will be the Los Angeles mayor and L.A. County sheriff. There are seven ballot propositions for voters to decide on the table.

In the November midterm election, California is one of the battlefields as Democrats and Republicans fight over control of Congress.


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