Battle for controller: A primary within a primary

Headquarters of the state controller, Sacramento. (Photo: Coolcaesar)

California’s “top two“ primary system is creating an odd dynamic – a party primary within an open primary.

In the race for state controller, the top three candidates are Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, and Democrats Betty Yee and John Pérez.  Yee is a member of the Board of Equalization and Pérez served as Assembly speaker. The incumbent controller, John Chiang, is running for state treasurer.

Pérez and Yee, two politicians with a certain level of name recognition, are facing what in effect is a Democratic primary within the open primary.

In an April Field Poll, Swearengin led the race with 28% of likely voters. Yee sat at second with 19%, followed by Pérez at 14%.  The three other candidates – Republican David Evans, Democrat Tammy Blair, and the Green Party’s Laura Wells – have not been viewed as significant contenders and were not included in the poll.

Pérez and Yee, two politicians with a certain level of name recognition, are facing what in effect is a Democratic primary within the open primary.

“While Swearengin is leading the race, she is actually the least well known of the candidates polled. Just 36% of likely voters statewide can offer an opinion of the Fresno Mayor, compared to 51% for Yee and 53% for Pérez,” the Field Poll reported.

So the real fight in the race is among the Democrats.

Yee’s lead over Pérez is just above the Field Poll’s margin of error (4.5%); however, since the poll, Pérez  has put substantial financial space between him and his opponent. By mid-May, Perez had raised $3.58 million to Yee’s $1.34 million. Additionally, Perez’s money arrived in a relatively short time. He entered the race in October 2013. Yee has been fundraiser for her run since 2011, when her opponent looked to be a weakened Bill Lockyer.

Although Perez has much more money than Yee, the source of his money is concentrated. A third of his take ($1.2 million) comes from labor, contrasted with Yee’s $112,975 in labor money. Perez received 1,299 contributions, averaging $2,755 per get. Yee’s average is $792, a result of 1,687 contributions, with 71% under $1,000 (only 18% of Pérez’s contributions have come in at under $1000).

On endorsements: Pérez got the nod from most of labor, the exceptions being the California Federation of Teachers, the California Nurses Association and a handful of locals. Perez has the backing of most of the Democrats in the Legislature, as well as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and much of California’s congressional Democrats. Yee has much support among mayors and local office holders. Additionally, Yee has gotten the endorsement of most of the major daily and weekly newspapers.

Perez also did not accept campaign spending limits of $5.4 million, forfeiting a ballot statement because of that decision. Pérez also failed to gain the endorsement of his party, something he was expected to receive.

While Yee has many endorsements from women’s groups, the Pérez campaign has received much cash from Planned Parenthood.  Perez’s endorsements from Latino groups are dwarfed by Yee’s from Asian-Americans. Though Perez is gay, endorsements from LGBT groups are split.

Both Pérez and Yee state that they would use their position as controller to protect the huge CalPERS and CalSTRS pension funds. Yee states that pushing for tax reform will be one of her concerns. She also emphasized the controller’s role on the State Lands Commission and promises to practice “responsible economic stewardship.” Pérez has campaigned less on the issues and more on his experience as Assembly Speaker, his role in job creation and his efforts to reduce California’s budget deficit.

Yee has touted her three decades of working on public finance, specifically the 10 years she has spent on the Board of Equalization, where she has pushed for tax reform, requiring online retailers to pay California sales tax, and creating an open system of government.

Yee also cites her experience as California Department of Finance’s chief deputy director under Gray Davis as an asset. However, the Davis budgets that she helped craft led to record deficits, critics note.

Yee’s ability to fund-raise has also been called into question, potentially making her vulnerable against a well-funded GOP opponent.

Perez has a history as an aggressive fundraiser, something his campaign sees as an asset, although it drew fire last year.

The Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered memos from Perez’s to Assembly Democrats directing them to fundraise for specific candidates in the 2012 election. CIR alleges that the top fundraisers were rewarded with appointments to coveted posts on committees that are a source of “abundant” campaign contributions, AKA “juice committees.” CIR also reported that many of those hit up by Assembly members in Perez’s 2012 money blitz were the industries regulated by the committees – casinos, racetracks, public utilities, banks, and others.

Much depends on turnout, and the June 3 vote is expected to be light, which traditionally is good news for Republicans. But if Republicans stay away from polls, thinking Swearingen is a shoo-in, Perez and Yee could wind up in an intra-party fight in the general.

Ed’s Note: Scott Soriano is a Sacramento-based writer and a contributor to Capitol Weekly.


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