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Opinion Meet the Republican who could upset California’s Democratic monopoly

Lanhee J. Chen, who is now a Republican candidate for California controller, during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" in January 2020. (NBC Newswire/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images)

No Republican has won election to any of California’s nine partisan statewide offices for 16 years, and the GOP hasn’t controlled either house of the legislature for more than a quarter-century. But when Lanhee J. Chen was growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s, the state that had helped catapult Ronald Reagan to the presidency was still politically competitive.

Chen, 44, thinks it can be competitive again — at least when the focus is state governance rather than national culture wars. The top policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a fellow (on leave) at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, Chen is running as a Republican to be controller, California’s chief fiscal officer.

He has reasons for optimism, having come out first in the June “jungle primary” with 37 percent of the vote, outraised his general election opponent, Democrat Malia Cohen, and won the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. The Chen campaign’s internal polling shows 57 percent of Californians would consider voting for a Republican controller candidate.

It is difficult for any Republican to overcome the state’s partisan lean, with Democrats holding a nearly 2-to-1 registration advantage. But if Chen can break the state GOP’s long losing streak, it would point to voter fatigue with one-party rule — and a glimmer of possibility for renewed political competition on the West Coast.

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The erosion of accountability in Sacramento is Chen’s best point to press with independents and moderate Democrats. “It’s not even just about being part of the one-party monopoly,” Chen told me over lunch in Washington. “It’s like you’ve got to be part of the right part of the one-party monopoly — you’ve got to be part of the San Francisco clan, because the L.A. clan never sees the light of day.” Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, was mayor of San Francisco, and Cohen, Chen’s opponent, was president of the city’s board of supervisors.

Chen was born in North Carolina in 1978. But his parents, immigrants from Taiwan, “figured out two things” about the Tar Heel State — first, that it’s “very far from Taiwan, and second, the Chinese food is very bad,” Chen said. “So we ended up moving to Southern California when I was 6.” After high school, Chen went to Harvard University, where he returned for a law degree and a doctorate in political science.

Part of his dissertation studied the effect of partisan state judicial elections, and found that partisan elected judges were less likely to overturn criminal convictions. After all, it’s politically safer to let even questionable convictions stand. “Political science is sometimes the art of proving the obvious,” Chen observed.

Some of California’s unsettling fiscal truths are also hiding in plain sight. Newsom, for example, has boasted of California’s $97.5 billion budget surplus. “What people need to understand,” Chen said, is that that figure “is entirely a function of a lot of people realizing capital gains” from the booming stock market, “and a lot of federal money” from pandemic relief, “both of which have gone away this year.”

According to Chen, the state is headed for “probably a $30 billion deficit within a few fiscal years.” He added that “there is very little effort made, certainly by this governor, to inform people about the implications of a large surplus going into a large deficit” for the state’s ability to solve problems. In 2011, Chen noted, California’s controller “refused to pay the legislature because they didn’t produce a truly balanced budget.”

The controller’s most important power is auditing public expenditures. Chen wants to understand how California paid $20 billion in fraudulent unemployment benefits during the pandemic. He also says there “hasn’t been any systematic effort” to keep track of the billions in pandemic aid Washington sent to Sacramento to support schools.

“I have heard anecdotally across the state,” Chen said, that school districts have not made “the kinds of improvements they were supposed to” with the windfall. He suspects that some of the budgetary opacity in the state educational system “is intentional.”

Chen is skeptical of politically motivated investing strategies that public pensions are under increasing pressure to adopt (California’s teacher and state-employee pension funds manage more than $700 billion). But unlike conservative politicians who cast their critique of “woke capital” in culture war terms, Chen points to the pragmatic fiscal risks. Issuing social statements through pension investments can make it harder for California to meet its underfunded obligations to civil servants, and open the door to cronyism, he said, if “somebody doesn’t like one company … for whatever reason.”

A Chen controllership could strike a blow for moderation — in California and the country. It would shine a light on the fiscal stewardship practiced by the “San Francisco clan” that controls America’s most populous state. The presidentially inclined Newsom, Chen said, “has other ambitions, and he probably doesn’t want anybody who’s going to be a fly in the ointment.”

An end to the Democrats’ statewide winning streak in California might also have a salutary effect on the GOP. The party’s collapse in the Golden State likely accelerated its turn toward populism at the national level. The fear is that California’s transformation from conservative bastion into one-party Democratic government is a preview of America’s political future.

It will take more than one election, but if Republicans can still win statewide by fielding disciplined and qualified candidates focused on the issues, the people of California will benefit from greater choice — and undercut the draw of the radical right.