Six Questions for State Controller Candidate Lanhee Chen
Bo Tefu | California Black Media
This article is part of California Black Media’s series of interviews with the candidates running for California State Controller.
Attorney and Stanford Law School lecturer Lanhee Chen is a Republican running for California State Controller.
Chen, a Fellow at the Hoover Institution, is respected among Republicans and Democrats for his work across party lines. President Barack Obama appointed him to serve on the bipartisan Social Security Advisory Board. And he has served as adviser to several Republican elected officials, including U.S. Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The Los Angeles Times recently endorsed Chen, stating that his bipartisan experience is an indication that he would be independent in a state government that is majority Democratic.
Chen spoke with California Black Media (CBM) about his plans to promote fiscal accountability, transparency and the state’s economic advancement.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.
From your perspective, what is the State Controller’s main function?
The State Controller is the chief financial watchdog for the state of California. It’s the individual who gives California taxpayers accountability over every single dollar the state spends. The Controller oversees the disbursement of state funds.
The Controller’s office also has an unclaimed property department. The state keeps a catalogue of all the information people need to claim money they forgot they had.
Perhaps the most important thing the controller does is audit. The Controller is responsible for auditing programs ran by the state government. These audits help the Controller figure out where and how the state spends taxpayers’ money.
The main objectives of this role are financial management accounting and fiscal responsibility.
Why are you running for Controller?
I believe that when we think about the challenges California faces right now, some of those challenges are created by a lack of good fiscal management. A lack of a real set of accountability principles around how our money is being spent. My background in policymaking, academics, and business is exactly the kind of experience that is needed for this job. I’ve spent my career solving problems in fiscal and public policy.
All that experience has prepared me to serve in a role which is predominantly about making sure that the state is spending money wisely. The Controller’s independence from other statewide elected officials is the most important. My track record shows that I have a history of working as a bipartisan problem solver.
Do you feel being a Republican is a disadvantage or an advantage?
The obvious disadvantage is the sheer number of Democrats that outnumber the number of Republicans in the state. There are also some ways that the Republican Party hasn’t been a welcoming and inviting place for people of all backgrounds. I have an immigrant background. I grew up in Orange County. My parents came to the US and managed to put together and raise a great family.
One of the major advantages of this job is that I get to be the one asking tough who isn’t in the ‘go along to get along club.’ My background and political affiliation will be helpful in terms of making sure we get answers to tough questions.
In terms of working with Democrats, I have a demonstrated record of working with Democrats and I don’t have an issue working with people who want transparency in terms of how we’re spending our money and where it’s going.
What experience do you bring to this position?
Along with my policy background, I’ve served on boards of regional and community healthcare systems. I’ve also been an entrepreneur and investor for small businesses. My experience helps me understand the business and financial aspects of this job. I know how to look at the financials of our state and figure out what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and how do we give people more information.
Seeing I am also an educator, I can help people understand what’s happening in our state budget.
If you win, what will be your first priority?
The first thing we need is transparency into every dollar the state spends. I want to create a fully transparent, searchable, machine-readable database that allows you to figure out exactly our state is spending money. This project will help us set up a government transparency portal that gives us a sense of whether the spending was effective or not.
Second, I want to use the role’s auditing power and dig deeper into how and what we’re spending on.
We need clarity on funding that supports the state’s priority issues such as K-12 education, homelessness, and health care.
A lot of Black and Brown people work for state government. What is your view on unfunded pension liabilities?
Ideally, promises made should be promises kept.
I have a big problem with the idea that we play politics and interfere with pension funds. The primary goal of pension funds is to keep people’s retirement earnings safe and ensure that we’re maximizing the return on the investment that we make. Unfortunately, the state isn’t doing that in a lot of cases. CalPERS and CalSTRS both have not been truthful with us for too many years about what their expectations are about how much in unfunded liabilities we have.
How would you describe your leadership style? And how does that match with the demands of being the State Controller?
My leadership style is about establishing goals and having principles. But it’s also critical to understanding that there’s a time to stand on principle and a time to stand alone. That is a delicate balance. Integrity and ethical leadership are pivotal to making sure everybody’s rowing in the right direction.
This role calls for a leader that isn’t afraid of managing conflict. We won’t not always be on the same page. Fiscal responsibility can only be achieved through transparency and accountability. It is my priority to be the type of leader that lets people know that I’m happy to work together, but I won’t back down on my values or compromise my independence.