Malia Cohen, a leading candidate to become California’s lead bookkeeper and accountant, has spent much of the past year physically and virtually crisscrossing the state explaining what a controller actually does and pitching herself as the best person for the job.
Essentially, the controller administers and monitors the disbursement of funds from the state treasury and helps audit for potential issues of fraud and abuse, which have been rampant during the pandemic as the state has allocated billions in Covid relief.
Cohen, a native daughter of San Francisco who graduated from Lowell High School, has risen through the ranks of local politics, representing District 10 for eight years on the Board of Supervisors, including a one-year stint as president. After terming out, she was appointed to a position on San Francisco’s Police Commission and won a seat on the state Board of Equalization, serving alongside current Controller Betty Yee who is leaving office due to term limits. It’s Yee who Cohen credits for drafting her into the race.
“She said, ‘I think you can do it, I think you would do an excellent job and you’d be a strong candidate that would be able to run statewide,’” Cohen said.
While results are still rolling in, Cohen’s lead makes her nearly certain to face off against Republican candidate Lanhee Chen in the general election.
Here’s an overview of the major issues at play and what she hopes to achieve if she wins a four-year term in November.
So, what exactly does a controller do?
A slightly obscure, yet important role in California’s executive branch, the controller acts as the state’s chief fiscal officer and is responsible for accounting and administration of state and local finances.
The controller runs a bureaucracy of more than 2,000 employees who audit spending by state agencies, administer payroll for state workers and oversee the annual auditing of local governments.
They also serve on 78 boards and commissions, including the board of CalPERS, CalSTRS, the state Board of Equalization and the Franchise Tax Board, among myriad others.
What are the big issues at play in the election?
Cohen says she wants to expand the controller’s role to support women, working families and marginalized groups—and she’s made that vision a centerpiece to her platform. She says she wants to use the power of the office to make sure the state complies with the fair-pay laws and ensure that tax credit and affordable housing programs function like they should. Cohen said she is hoping to make the position of controller more accessible to the average Californian by offering resources in more languages and making communication about public spending clearer.
An academic at Stanford University, Chen has served as policy guru for major Republican figures, including Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio. And he’s taken aim at wasteful spending in his campaign, putting himself forward as a steady fiscal hand who can cut through the politics in Sacramento, stand up to the Democratic establishment and fairly adjudicate programs mired in dysfunction.
How is it that a Republican fared so well in the primaries?
As the only GOP contender in the race, Chen came out comfortably atop the nonpartisan jungle primary as the four Democratic candidates duked it out amongst themselves for the privilege of running against him in the general election.
Chen consolidated the Republican vote and was able to win a number of endorsements from federal, state and local GOP leaders. In interviews and public statements, Chen has navigated the political baggage of being a Republican in a deep-blue state by refusing to disclose who he voted for president in 2020, while noting the election results themselves were legitimate.
When the draft report of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked, Chen released a statement saying he had “neither the power nor inclination to change current California laws regarding abortion or to restrict access to abortion.”
Does Chen stand a chance of winning statewide office in California?
While Chen has been positioned as the Californian GOP’s hope of winning a statewide race this year, the fact remains that no Republican has been able to achieve that in the 16 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor.
Chen said after his primary win that prevailing in November “will require an effort that hasn’t been seen in our state in a long time.”
For the position of controller, the odds are even longer.
California hasn’t elected a Republican to the position since 1975. Democratic political consultant Steven Maviglio says Chen represents the GOP’s best chance to win statewide office in November—but that doesn’t mean his odds are good.
“Republicans need something to hang their hat on, and he’s it,” Maviglio said.
But he’s barely cracking 37%, which means more than 60% of voters backed a Democrat.
“He’s an attractive candidate with crossover appeal,” Magivlio added, “but the Republican brand is so unpopular I am doubtful he can pull it off.”
What’s Cohen’s pitch to voters?
Cohen is highlighting her extensive experience in government.
She says she’s already had the responsibility of monitoring and managing pension plans and performing public audits through her role at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile, she says her current position on the state Board of Equalization has given her insight into the tax collection and public administration.
Chen, on the other hand, “has no experience and has never cast a vote in public office,” Cohen said. So, she continued, “all he can do is rhetoric, there is no substance that voters can evaluate him on.”
Plus, she said she doubts voters will be fooled by Chen’s efforts to distance himself from national Republican Party positions. Rather than shying away from the issue of abortion—which figures to be a major theme in the November election—Cohen has made protecting Californians' reproductive rights a central plank of her pitch to voters and has called on Chen to make his position clear. She pointed to the controller’s ability to block dollars allocated to health clinics and abortion service providers.
“We’re asking voters to make an honest and informed choice; we’re asking voters to vote on a candidate that’s transparent about their record,” Cohen said. “(Chen) cannot talk about being a transparent, independent voice for the taxpayer while not being honest about his votes and core ethics or where he stands on timely issues like abortion or reproductive rights. It’s a disingenuous and dishonest approach.”
Correction: This story previously stated that Cohen would be the third Black woman to be elected to statewide office in California, However, the second person to take statewide office was appointed to the position rather than elected.
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected]