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Democrat leading in race to be California's fiscal chief

File photo of Malia Cohen listening to speakers during a news conference in San Francisco, May 12, 2016.
Jeff Chiu
File photo of Malia Cohen listening to speakers during a news conference in San Francisco, May 12, 2016.

Democrat Malia Cohen was leading in California's race for controller, with early returns Tuesday night quashing GOP hopes to win statewide office for the first time since 2006.

Cohen, who serves on a state tax board, was leading Republican Lanhee Chen with 57% of the vote after about 30% of ballots were counted.

The controller, a post held since 2015 by Democrat Betty Yee, is the state's fiscal chief with the power to disburse state funds and audit government agencies. The controller also serves on more than 70 boards and commissions, including one that incentivizes renewable energy production and another that gives bonds to nonprofit colleges.


Chen, a former policy adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, prevailed in the June primary, but the four Democrats running against him collectively won more votes. He's marketed himself as someone who would be an independent watchdog of the state’s finances.

A policy fellow on leave from the conservative think tank the Hoover Institution, Chen is vying to end his party’s 16-year losing streak in statewide races.

In an interview last month with KCRA-TV, Chen said Californians deserve more clarity on where their taxpayer dollars end up.

“I can't think of a more important project to get the state back on track than an office that is supposed to be a watchdog for taxpayers but too often has really just been a rubber stamp,” Chen said.

Cohen, a former chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ budget and finance committee, hopes to make it easier for people to report fraud after more than $20 billion of fraudulent unemployment benefits were paid out during the pandemic. She wants to use her auditing power to identify problems within agencies and push for solutions to prevent them from happening again.


If elected, Cohen would be the state's first Black controller.

“I also feel a responsibility to uplift and inspire other women that want to run for office, other members that are particularly from communities of color that also want to run for office,” Cohen said in an interview with CalMatters.

The race has brought in widespread attention, support and money from the GOP in and out of the state with nearly double the number of registered Democrats as Republicans. Chen raised $3.3 million in campaign contributions for the year through the October reporting deadline, doubling what Cohen raised over that time period. He even brought in more money than Brian Dahle, the Republican candidate for governor.

Chen waited until after the primary race to admit that he didn’t vote for former President Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020. The Cohen campaign tried to tie him to Republicans pushing for anti-abortion legislation even though he says he supports abortion access, and the controller isn’t responsible for pushing abortion policy in either direction.

Leading up to Election Day, the Chen campaign called into question Cohen’s financial history after the Los Angeles Times reported that a condo she bought in 2006 was foreclosed on and a business license was suspended for tax issues. Cohen called attacks about the condo foreclosure exploitative and says the business license suspension resulted from a change of address.