Democrat Malia Cohen wins California state controller race

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Democrat Malia Cohen has won the race for California controller, beating out a Republican who gave his party its best shot in years to end its losing streak in statewide elections.

Cohen will become the state’s first Black controller, a role that involves disbursing state funds, auditing government agencies and serving on more than 70 boards and commissions. She says her past role leading the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ budget and finance committee makes her uniquely qualified for the job.

“As your controller, I will make sure our tax dollars address the homelessness crisis, protect our environment, and provide access to healthcare and reproductive freedom. Let’s build a California where everyone thrives,” Cohen said in a statement. “We have work to do, and I’m excited to get started.”

Cohen declared victory on election night, but The Associated Press did not call the race until the following Tuesday. Cohen was leading with 55% of the vote after more than 8 million ballots were counted.

Cohen hopes to make it easier for people to report fraud following the more than $20 billion of fraudulent unemployment benefits California gave to criminals 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.

While Cohen had California’s Democrat-dominated electorate on her side, Republican Lanhee Chen’s campaign put up a competitive fight. Chen, who’s never held elected office, brought in widespread attention, support and money from those in his party both in and out of the state. He raised $3.3 million in campaign contributions for the year through the October reporting deadline, doubling what Cohen raised over that time period. Chen even brought in more money than Brian Dahle, the Republican candidate for governor.

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

Chen said in a statement Tuesday that it became clear he wouldn’t win the race, adding that he reached out to Cohen to congratulate her.

“While our campaign was not successful, I am filled with gratitude for my wife, kids and family, whose steadfast support made my candidacy possible,” he said.

Chen also thanked voters, volunteers and donors who supported his campaign.

Cohen, who serves on a state tax board, will follow a similar path to the role as Democrat Betty Yee, who served on the Board of Equalization before stepping into her role as controller. The board administers tax programs in the state.

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.

Chen, a policy fellow now on leave at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, 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.

In other statewide races, Democratic incumbent Gavin Newsom cruised to a second term as governor, Democrat Eleni Kounalakis was re-elected lieutenant governor, Democrat Fiona Ma won a second term as treasurer, Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta, appointed to the post last year, won a four-year term, Democrat Shirley Weber won re-election as secretary of state, and Democrat Ricardo Lara was re-elected insurance commissioner.

—-

Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna