Another high-stakes election looms — but largely under the radar

A photo illustration of bacteria as seen through a research microscope. (Photo: Per Bengtsson, via Shutterstock)

California has another election coming up this fall, but it is not your usual political campaign free-for-all.

Instead, it involves the leadership of the $12 billion state stem cell agency, which is trying mightily to develop “miraculous” treatments and cures for diseases that afflict — according to its backers — half of the families in California.

Some of the potential treatments currently being financed would change the genetic makeup of some human beings or trigger “killer” cells that fight off cancer. But they have yet to clear the federal barriers that assure their safety and effectiveness.

The $569,000-a-year job is now open because the current chair, Jonathan Thomas, is termed out next year.

California voters will not get a chance, however, to cast a ballot to decide who chairs the research program. Only 35 persons are permitted to vote — the members of its governing board. Even then, they cannot vote for just anyone. They must choose one of two persons nominated by four of the Golden State’s top politicians: the governor, the lieutenant governor, the treasurer and the controller.  All are Democrats.

The race for the post pits John A. Pérez, who once filled a position that is described as the second most powerful in California state government (speaker of the State Assembly), against a scientist, Emilie Marcus, now at UCLA but who once was the CEO of a highly respected, scientific global publishing company, Cell Press.

The $569,000-a-year job is now open because the current chair, Jonathan Thomas, is termed out next year.

CIRM can receive as much as $540 million annually.

Whoever is chosen will face daunting tasks. They include fulfilling the 2004 expectations of voters that CIRM would develop revolutionary therapies for such things as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure and more. Then there is the question of CIRM’s viability beyond the next decade or so. CIRM is the only state department to have a financial death sentence hanging over it. When the $5.5 billion in bond funding authorized in 2020 runs out, that’s the end of CIRM’s financial game unless the chair and the board can divine a path forward.

CIRM’s current, multibillion-dollar funding sounds like a lot, and it is a lot. But CIRM directors recently had a day in which they awarded and allocated $137 million. Days like that tend to shorten the agency’s lifespan but at the same time fuel its mission.

CIRM can receive as much as $540 million annually. Its pre-2020 spending rate was well below that, but it is now financing much more expensive later-stage research, such as clinical trials at $20 million a pop and maybe more later, a $50 million laboratory building project, a $80 million community centers program, an $80 million manufacturing network, etc., etc.

Candidates bring quite different skills to the historic agency
CIRM is making history in California. It is the first such research program in the Golden State and is the largest state research program in the nation. CIRM was created by voters 18 years ago this month when 59 percent of them approved Proposition 71 in 2004. It was saved from financial extinction in 2020 with $5.5 billion more through Proposition 14, although the measure was approved by a much narrower margin, 51 percent to 49 percent. Interest expense on the borrowed money boosts CIRM’s estimated cost to $12 billion.

Pérez  is also a member of the governing board of the University of California, which has received $1.4 billion from CIRM

The two candidates for the top job bring distinctly different skills to CIRM. Pérez  currently operates a small, legislative and political consulting firm, Double Nickel Advisors, LLC, in Los Angeles. Pérez’s major clients range from the Los Angeles Chargers football team and a distressed properties banking firm (Gordian Group)  to HCA Healthcare, a national hospital/healthcare chain, as well as the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, which represents 32,000 members. He is also a member of the governing board of the University of California, which has received $1.4 billion from CIRM.

Pérez, who was nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, reported an income of more than $100,000 annually in 2021 from Double Nickel, according to his statement of economic interest that is filed with UC. The state does not require more specificity on income levels.

Marcus, the former CEO of Cell Press, was also editor-in-chief of Cell, which is the No. 1 impact journal in the world in its field. Currently, she is the senior associate dean of strategy at the school of medicine at UCLA, a position she came to from Cell Press in 2018. She was nominated by Controller Betty Yee and Treasurer Fiona Ma.  In 2021, UCLA paid her $382,499.  UCLA is the second largest recipient of CIRM funding at $371 million.

The CIRM’s governance directors’ subcommittee will meet behind closed doors on  Dec. 12, then announce their choice three days later.

The initiative spells out the duties of the chair in considerable detail, including giving him or her responsibility for CIRM “workflow including all evaluations and approvals of scientific and medical working group grants, loans, facilities, and standards evaluations” as well as  supervising the agency’s annual report.  But it also leaves room for creative expansion of the chair’s role and gives the chair overlapping responsibilities with the president of CIRM, a situation that resulted in serious public friction between the two in the initial years of the agency.

Public has little say in the choice
Both Marcus and Pérez  have declined requests by Capitol Weekly to speak publicly about their priorities and approaches to CIRM. They have said, directly or indirectly, that they want to meet with CIRM directors first.

There is no other formal way for the public to comment or ask questions.

They are now scheduled to do just that on Dec. 12 at a meeting of the CIRM directors’ Governance Subcommittee, but only behind closed doors. Three days later the board is scheduled to make its choice when the first public utterances by the candidates will be made just prior to the vote.

The public can address the board, however, on both occasions or comment in writing at any time. Or for that matter, comments can be made Nov. 29 at the meeting of the board’s 19-member Application Review Subcommittee. But there is no other formal way for the public to comment or ask questions.

Online searches do not produce much about how the candidates might deal with specific issues facing CIRM. But they do provide some flavor of how they have conducted their professional lives in the past.

Editor’s Note:  David Jensen is a retired newsman who has written about the stem cell agency since 2005 on his newsletter, the California Stem Cell Report. He is the author of “California’s Great Stem Cell Experiment.”

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