In the pecking order of statewide offices, controller falls somewhere in the middle – below the governor or the attorney general, certainly, but higher in political stature than the insurance commissioner, the state schools superintendent or, at the very bottom, the lieutenant governor.
The controller writes state checks, oversees some audits and sits on some influential boards and commissions – but the position’s political clout comes from being a bully pulpit on state financial matters.
Controller John Chiang has certainly used that pulpit and, facing term limits, is poised to segue into the state’s other financial position, state treasurer. Meanwhile, who follows him as controller has become one of the year’s most watched political situations.
On primary election night, four contenders – two Democrats and two Republicans – were virtually tied, but a million votes remained to be processed.
Each day since then has provided a new fix for political junkies and number-crunchers as the fortunes of the quartet have ebbed and flowed with every county vote report.
Just two of the four can appear on the Nov. 4 ballot, and 10 days after voting ended, it’s evident that a Republican, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, will finish in first place while the other three vie for second place.
Initially, it seemed possible that the second Republican, a little-known Southern California accountant named David Evans, would join Swearengin.
However, it’s now virtually certain that a Democrat, either former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez or Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, will make it.
Yee had opened a 3,621-vote lead over Pérez by late Thursday, but if the final tally is very close, a recount may be on the horizon.
Swearengin would probably prefer to face Pérez. He carries the burden of the Legislature’s unpopularity, and facing him might help Swearengin get women’s votes, regardless of party.
Yee wouldn’t carry any obvious negatives into a duel with Swearengin other than coincidentally and unfortunately sharing a surname with Leland Yee, an unrelated state senator facing federal criminal charges.
Could that make a difference? That would depend on whether voters are paying attention. After all, Leland Yee garnered more than 350,000 votes for secretary of state even though he had publicly quit the race after being indicted.
But the biggest question of the forthcoming contest, regardless of who Swearengin’s rival turns out to be, is whether she can re-establish a Republican toehold in statewide office and thus help restore her party to some relevance.
Swearengin represents a new, more moderate and more inclusive image that party leaders want to develop as they seek to regain traction in the face of declining voter registration and a right-wing image that alienates many voters, including many independents.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.