SACRAMENTO — Lanhee Chen, an academic and former policy advisor for Republican candidates including 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, announced Tuesday he’s running for California controller.
The controller is the state’s chief fiscal officer. The office disburses state money and has the power to audit state agencies and programs, something Chen said he’d use regularly if elected. California’s high-speed rail project, Medicaid program and unemployment agency would be his top targets.
He believes failures in the state’s Employment Development Department that led to massive fraud and millions of Californians receiving late unemployment checks during the early months of the pandemic could have been avoided with more regular oversight.
“If they had been more aggressive at regularly auditing, I really think we wouldn’t be in the position we find ourselves in today,” he said.
Controller Betty Yee, a Democrat, will be termed out of office in 2022. Under her leadership, the controller’s office has since 2015 found more than $6 billion in “waste, abuse and fiscal mismanagement” across state government, according to the department’s website.
Board of Equalization member Malia Cohen so far is the only declared Democratic candidate for controller.
Chen’s Long Record in Republican Politics
Chen has a long track record in Republican politics. He served as the policy director for Romney’s unsuccessful race against then-President Barack Obama, helping hone the campaign’s positions on everything from health care to foreign policy. He also held a policy role with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
He’s also worked in government as an appointee during former President George W. Bush’s administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He was an appointed member of the Social Security Advisory Board from 2015 to 2019.
Running as a Republican automatically puts Chen at a political disadvantage in California, where just a quarter of registered voters identify with the party. The GOP hasn’t won statewide office since 2006, ,when Arnold Schwarzenegger was re-elected as governor.
But Chen hopes he can win over voters with a commitment to bringing more transparency and oversight to how the state spends taxpayer money. Voters “want someone who will just be straight with them about what’s going on in this state,” he said.
Chen Says Policy Background Will Bring Fresh Ideas to the Office
Chen declined to answer whether he voted for former President Donald Trump, who lost California twice and is deeply unpopular among many of the state’s voters. One of California Democrats’ strategies is to link Republicans to Trump whenever possible.
Chen is the child of immigrants from Taiwan, and he lives in Mountain View with his wife and two children, ages 7 and 10.
He’s now affiliated with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he serves as a fellow in American public policy studies and a director of policy studies in the public policy program.
While the state controller doesn’t set policy, Chen said his policy background will help him bring ideas and fresh thinking to the office, including how to better provide oversight of state agencies and programs. He also has some fiscal and budget oversight experience through his work as a board member at El Camino Hospital, he said.