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California

Capitol Journal: Less-funded controller’s race is where the real money is

Who could have imagined? The California controller contest is more intriguing than the slow-motion race for governor.

Gov. Jerry Brown isn’t really campaigning, and he’s jogging far ahead of Republican Neel Kashkari, even if the Democrat’s lead has been trimmed to 16 percentage points, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. That’s still a mini-landslide in the making.

Brown has roughly $20 million banked for TV ads, if he chooses to spend it. Kashkari’s campaign is practically broke.

The controller’s race, however, is one of only two for statewide office that a Republican has a credible chance of winning.

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The other is for secretary of state between Democrat Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles state senator, and Republican Pete Peterson, who heads a Pepperdine University policy institute. I recently wrote about that fight.

Betty Yee, 57, a member of the tax administering state Board of Equalization, has been training for the job of controller all her life. She’s unquestionably qualified.

And being a Democrat in a deep-blue state, Yee has a good shot at winning the office Nov. 4. At last count, voters registered as Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 15 points in California, roughly 43% to 28%. Independents are 23%.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, 42, also has a decent crack at capturing the office. If she does, Swearengin — adept, articulate and telegenic — would rekindle a fire in the California GOP and immediately become a party star.

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No Republican woman has won a California statewide office in 44 years.(Treasurer Ivy Baker Priest when Ronald Reagan was governor).

In fact, only seven women have won statewide office in California at all. On Nov. 4 there’ll be an eighth, no matter which candidate is elected controller.

It’s one of the more obscure jobs in state government. But it does perform some necessary functions. The controller counts and handles the money, has the ability to audit how tax dollars are spent and has seats on 81 boards and commissions. Those include the Board of Equalization, Franchise Tax Board, public retirement systems and State Lands Commission.

So voters need to be careful whom they elect to the job.

Both controller candidates have shown streaks of independence.

Swearengin has refused to endorse her party’s gubernatorial candidate, Kashkari. That has caused heartburn within the GOP and prompted state party chairman Jim Brulte to call her neutrality “felony stupid.”

Swearengin’s explanation to me: “It’s important that the chief financial watchdog of the state be independent. People need to know I’ll be coming to the table without bias.”

Sure, but the mayor also is distancing herself from a perceived loser and a tarnished brand name. The new poll by the public policy institute found that 64% of California voters — including one-third of Republicans —have an unfavorable impression of the GOP.

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Moreover, Kashkari sneaked into Fresno and posed as a homeless man for a week so he could later corral the news media and complain about a weak California economy. That bummed out the mayor.

“I would have liked to have talked to him about what we’ve done in Fresno,” Swearengin says. “We had some of the largest homeless encampments in the country, but now they’re being cleaned up…. And we’re the fifth best job-creating city in California.”

Swearengin generally is credited with saving Fresno from bankruptcy by eliminating 25% of city jobs, privatizing commercial trash collection and forcing the police to contribute more to their pensions and healthcare.

She has been a leading supporter of Brown’s $68-billion bullet train project, which would begin near Fresno and create loads of high-paying jobs. That’s another quarrel she has with Kashkari, who calls it “the crazy train.”

Swearengin jabs at Yee for having been Gov. Davis’ chief deputy budget director back when the state was overspending and heading into a huge deficit hole. No one who watched, however, ever blamed Yee for Sacramento’s fiscal irresponsibility.

“My role was to present all the options possible,” Yee says. “Politics came into play. The governor and legislative leaders made decisions that sometimes didn’t agree with our recommendations.”

Before working for the governor, Yee was a numbers-cruncher for the Legislature. She grew up handling books for her immigrant Chinese parents’ laundry and dry cleaning business in San Francisco. After Davis, she went to work for the state Board of Equalization and ultimately was elected to a seat.

“Experience matters” is her main pitch.

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Yee, a policy wonk, is not one to be frightened off by political dangers. She led the fight to force Amazon to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases.

She’s currently a strong advocate for tax reform — relying less on rich people’s volatile incomes while lowering the sales tax rate and extending it to untaxed services.

She’d promote that as controller, arguing it’s preferable to merely extending Brown’s temporary tax increases when they begin to expire in 2016, as many Democrats want.

“I also want to invest in alternative energy,” she says. “And I’m opposed to oil fracking.” That’s important to know, because she’d have a seat on the powerful Lands Commission, which has a say on oil drilling.

Swearengin opposes new taxes and wants to sock more money away for debt retirement and public works.

This low-profile race — neither has much money — probably will be decided by independent voters.

Both are quality candidates.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton


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