Endorsement: Lanhee Chen for controller because California needs an independent fiscal watchdog

Lanhee Chen during an appearance on "Meet the Press."
Lanhee Chen on “Meet the Press” in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 27, 2019.
( William B. Plowman / NBC via Getty Images)

California voters have two impressive candidates to choose from in the race for state controller, an obscure but important office that cuts the checks that keep the government running and has the power to audit state finances.

The selection should boil down to this: Do you want the position to be held by someone who’s in tight with the officials who run state government? Or would you rather see it occupied by someone with the independence and skills to examine why state spending has not yielded better results?

We believe the latter is the better choice, which is why we endorsed Lanhee Chen in the June primary election and why we urge a vote for him on the Nov. 8 ballot.

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.

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Chen teaches public policy as a Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford University and has worked in government, politics, academia and business. He has experience analyzing complex financial systems in his current role on the board of directors of a nonprofit healthcare system in the Bay Area, and in his past role as a member of the Social Security Advisory Board, to which he was nominated by President Obama. Before that, he was policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Chen is a moderate Republican who does not traffic in conspiracies. He is unequivocal in stating that the 2020 presidential election was legitimate — and that Donald Trump has been untruthful in saying otherwise. Before the primary Chen would not say whom he voted for in the last two presidential elections. Since then, he has said that he did not vote for Trump (he wrote in Romney’s name in 2016 and left his ballot blank in 2020) and will not support him if he runs again.

On the issue of abortion, Chen describes himself as pro-choice and said he wasn’t involved in crafting Romney’s anti-abortion stance in 2012 (Romney’s position on abortion shifted over his political career). Chen said he wouldn’t use the controller’s office to push a partisan agenda on abortion or any other issue. Doing so would be difficult anyway, since the controller has no power to change the law or decide how the state spends money. That’s determined by the governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Chen’s focus is on the controller’s power to audit government spending. He pledges to scrutinize the biggest categories of spending and rate programs based on their effectiveness. This is an urgently needed service in a state that has a record of poor performance despite its soaring $300-billion budget. During the last several years of strong revenue, California pumped billions more into education, healthcare and alleviating homelessness. Yet too few students can read at grade level, too many Medi-Cal patients can’t see a doctor and too many people sleep on the streets.

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Californians deserve more clarity on why the state has not produced better results with its recent windfalls. A focused and independent controller can help point the way toward changes that will make spending more effective at addressing the state’s pressing problems.

The controller sits on dozens of boards and commissions, giving him or her a hand in overseeing state pension funds as well as financing authorities that issue bonds to build schools, hospitals and transportation projects. Chen would bring a more fiscally conservative perspective to these panels, though his ability to dramatically change their direction is doubtful, since the controller is just one vote on a larger body.


Chen’s opponent, Democrat Malia Cohen, has a track record of government service on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the state Board of Equalization, which oversees property tax collection. As a San Francisco supervisor, Cohen worked on divesting the city’s pension fund from fossil fuels and creating a department to investigate police shootings. She has strong ties to the state’s power structure, having received major campaign funding from influential public employee unions and endorsements from the California Democratic Party, most statewide officials and dozens of lawmakers.

Cohen is positioned to work well with the Democrats who run the state. But we believe that California needs a controller who has more independence. That’s why Chen is the better choice in this race.