Lanhee Chen decided to become a Republican at age 10 after watching the 1988 presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.
He has a vivid memory of watching Bush talk about “compassionate conservatism” and how important it is to encourage people to help one another. “Government is not the reflexive solution to everything,” said Chen, 44. “That was the vision.”
Chen, running as the Republican candidate for state controller in the Nov. 8 election, still resonates with that message. “I haven’t always been happy with my party, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in what George Bush was talking about.”
Chen’s opponent Malia Cohen is the first Black woman elected to the state Board of Equalization and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Chen’s party affiliation goes against the tide in California, where just 23.9 percent of voters are registered Republican and 46.8 percent are registered Democrat (22.7 percent are registered independent with the remainder in other small parties).
But Jessica Milan Patterson, the chair of the California Republican Party, said he is one of the party’s top prospects with a chance to actually win. “Lanhee Chen is someone who has worked in a bipartisan fashion,” she said. “He sees a problem and wants to go solve it. That’s what we’re looking for.
Chen’s opponent Malia Cohen is the first black woman elected to the state Board of Equalization and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Cohen has raised questions about whether Chen would preserve reproductive rights. She has pinned a video on her Twitter account that says, “Republicans like Lanhee Chen put abortion at risk even in California.” Chen responds that he is pro-choice and that, in any case, the controller has no power or funding to impact laws about reproductive rights.
He has gained the support of Democrat Gloria Romero, who was a state senator and served as Democratic majority leader of the state senate from 2005-2008. She believes he has the skills to serve as controller, which is the state’s independent fiscal watchdog and is charged with overseeing the disbursements of more than $100 billion in public funds. Romero thinks Chen is the perfect person to address alarming reports that at least $20 billion of California’s Employment Development Department’s payouts for pandemic unemployment relief went to fraud.
The family moved to the L.A. suburb of Rowland Heights in 1984 at an exciting time when L.A. was hosting the Olympics.
Chen, endorsed by the L.A. Times and Sacramento Bee, is needed to put a monkey wrench in a system that is wasting taxpayer dollars, Romero said. She said he can “make it stop churning so we the people can have a better sense of what’s going on.”
Other Democrats differ sharply, citing the Democrats’ track record in taking the controller’s office. The last GOP controller, Houston Flournoy, was elected 52 years ago, noted Democratic strategist and historian Garry South.
“What are the chances @lanheechen can be elected CA controller this year? Your answer here. Slim to zero, minus the slim,” South tweeted in May.
The son of immigrants from Taiwan, Chen was born in North Carolina and spent his first few years there. His parents came to the U.S. in the 1970s to pursue graduate studies — his father in medicine and his mother in chemistry. His mother sacrificed her career to raise Chen and his brother but eventually managed her husband’s medical practice.
The family moved to the L.A. suburb of Rowland Heights in 1984 at an exciting time when L.A. was hosting the Olympics. Today, Rowland Heights is an Asian enclave with 64.6 percent of its population Asian, but when Chen was growing up it had a larger Hispanic and white populations. Chen enjoyed growing up in such a diverse place and became a huge fan of the LA Dodgers and Lakers.
He served as Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser in his 2012 campaign and was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the bipartisan and independent Social Security Advisory Board
Chen attended public school but when it came time for higher education, he attended Harvard University. He earned four degrees there, including a doctoral degree in political science and a law degree.
He served as Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser in his 2012 campaign and was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the bipartisan and independent Social Security Advisory Board from 2014-2018. Chen emphasizes that he never supported President Donald Trump.
Chen is now on leave from teaching public policy and conducting research at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution think tank. He also served on the board of El Camino Health, a regional health system.
He and his wife, nonprofit attorney Cynthia Fung, have two children, ages 11 and 8, and live in the Bay Area.
In addition to investigating EDD fraud, Chen said that as controller he would like to examine state spending in homelessness, public schools and the gas tax. “There’s a tremendous amount of concern about where gas prices are and how quickly they’ve spiked over the last few weeks,” he said, when asked about wish topic was resonating most with voters. “It’s difficult when you have to fill up a couple of times a week at that level.”
While the controller doesn’t have the authority to lower gas prices, he said the person in the position can “audit the gas tax and make sure every dollar of the gas tax is being spent on what we’re told its being spent on.”
Chen has attacked Cohen for her business license being temporarily suspended for not paying her taxes and for her home being foreclosed 12 years ago. “She is someone who is a financial disaster trying to be chief fiscal officer in the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Chen said. Cohen has responded, “I know what financial hardships are and I know how to bounce back from it.”
While Chen said some may see him as a “egghead or nerd” who doesn’t understand or relate to the challenges facing most Californians, he says all the state’s residents have the same issues to deal with.
“We are tied together,” he said. “Our fate is a common one.”