Election Endorsements

Endorsements: Betty Yee and Ashley Swearengin are the best candidates for controller

Three experienced candidates are running to become California’s next controller, an office that in the right hands can be a force for fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Based on campaign fundraising, Speaker John A. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, is the front-runner heading into the June primary, having amassed $2.4 million.

Pérez, who is termed out of the Assembly, has been in the middle of budget negotiations since he arrived in the lower house five years ago, and has ample knowledge to carry out the duties of controller.

Campaign coffers aside, The Bee recommends two other candidates, Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the one Republican seeking statewide office who has a shot at winning election in the November general election.

Yee and Swearengin are the candidates who, if elected, most likely would focus on the job of being controller. The Bee generally will endorse two candidates in partisan primary races; the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will face one another in the November runoff.

Yee has spent three decades working in state government, starting as a legislative staffer, becoming a top Department of Finance official and budget adviser to Gov. Gray Davis, and chief of staff to former Board of Equalization member Carole Migden before winning election in 2006 to the board, which adjudicates tax disputes.

During Davis’ time as governor, Yee often urged caution on spending matters, advice the governor should have heeded more often. On the Board of Equalization, Yee has avoided conflicts, unlike some other members who have shown a proclivity to find in favor of campaign donors.

Yee turns down tobacco industry donations, for example. The board often is called upon to decide tobacco tax matters. The controller’s duties include sitting on the Board of Equalization.

The controller also serves on the boards that oversee the massive California State Teachers’ Retirement System and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Pérez, Yee and Swearengin would be sympathetic toward retirees’ needs. They might heed wishes of the public employee unions that seek to influence the board.

But Pérez, who was a labor official before winning his Assembly seat, is much more likely to heed the public employee unions that seek to influence the pension boards than Yee and certainly Swearengin.

No less than 28.5 percent of the $2.4 million Pérez has raised for the controller’s race has come from labor unions. Labor has accounted for 13 percent of Yee’s $752,000. Swearengin, a late entrant into the race, has raised less than $100,000 so far.

As Fresno mayor, Swearengin presides over a city that was hard hit during the recession. With the City Council, she made many unpopular cuts. Her city avoided bankruptcy and appears to be on the mend ever so slowly.

Swearengin butted heads with public employee unions by pushing to outsource municipal garbage collection. She also is willing to cross many in her Republican Party. For example, she supports the proposed high-speed rail system, correctly viewing it as a way for the Central Valley to emerge from the economic doldrums.

As its best, the controller is a financial watchdog whose auditors uncover misfeasance, as termed out Controller John Chiang did when he audited the corrupt city of Bell.

Chiang, who is running for treasurer, halted legislators’ pay in 2011 after concluding they had failed to pass a balanced budget. He also garnered attention by placing the salaries of public employees on a public website.

Yee or Swearengin would build on those accomplishments and serve as independent and aggressive watchdogs of taxpayers’ dollars.