The office of State Controller rarely makes the front page. Cash flow management and audits are not the sexiest topics in any government.
Occasionally, it does attract attention, as when John Chiang, the current but termed-out occupant of the office, attempted to enforce Proposition 25’s provision that legislators would be denied their pay if a balanced budget was not passed by the statutory deadline. That was back in June 2011.
A lawsuit filed by none other than John Perez charged Chiang with exceeding his constitutional authority. The court ruled in favor of Perez.
The messy dispute proved two things: never trust a proposition that guarantees accountability, and that Perez was just another political hack with no interest in accountability.
It is ironic, then, that Perez ran for State Controller this year after weakening the office with his lawsuit. Seemingly invincible with the bottomless checkbooks of the public unions behind him, he failed to take in account the competence of his two major opponents.
In a rare victory for the public, intelligence triumphed over arrogance. Ashley Swearengin (Republican) and Betty Yee (Democrat) had superior qualifications. Their combined votes squeezed Perez out of the runoff.
But it was also because the union mantle worked against Perez. “Many fiscally conservative Democrats and independents simply don’t trust a crony of government unions with the state’s books,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
That brings us to today.
With Perez out of the picture, public union support is flowing to Yee, providing her with a funding edge. But Perez enjoyed a 3-1 spending advantage over Yee in the primary and still finished out of the money. Cash may not be as important a factor in a race for a position few voters can define.
Yee has flip-flopped on her position on the expensive high-speed rail project. While originally against it, she now favors it in an attempt to consolidate union and environmental support. Oddly enough, Swearengen also supports it, but she has never changed her position.
Yee serves on the State Board of Equalization, so taxation is a subject she can relate to, but she was also former Governor Gray Davis’ budget director, during which time California went from a surplus position to a deep deficit – not the type of experience you want on your resume. Swearengin is the Mayor of Fresno and won acclaim for saving the city from the brink of bankruptcy. She does not support Neel Kaskkari’s candidacy for governor.
Swearengin is definitely the underdog in the race despite finishing on top in the primary. Experts believe she would have benefited from facing Perez where her gender would have been an asset. She has been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News.
On balance, I favor Swearengin because of her experience as a public and private executive dealing with diverse operations. Yee, although also adept at crunching numbers, has served mostly in a supporting role.
For certain, this is the race that will garner the least attention in part because the two opponents are not dramatically different.