In a virtual one-party monopoly, the party in power can become complacent in vetting its statewide candidates. This is playing out in the race for California state controller, where all major California newspapers have taken the extraordinary step of endorsing the candidate from the minority party, Republican Lanhee Chen.
The controller’s job is one that seriously impacts voters’ livelihoods because it concerns the protection of taxpayers and their money. The controller pays the state’s bills, exposes waste by reporting state spending, and fights abuse by performing audits—like those for the gas tax. But the Democratic party has put up a candidate whose judgment, financial history, and current associations have come under fire.
Can a Collector Protect Taxpayers?
Malia Cohen, the Democrats’ nominee, says she is qualified for the state controller role because she chairs the California Board of Equalization (BOE). In straightforward terms, the BOE is responsible for assessing and collecting several types of taxes and fees.
In essence, Cohen’s primary qualification is her experience as a tax assessor and collector. But how would a collector of voters’ money transform into a protector of voters’ money overnight, if elected? California’s controller must be a watchdog for taxpayers, not a lapdog for the party in power.
The BOE, a tax agency, had been mired in scandal for decades. Californians attempted to abolish or reduce the size of this agency but failed until 2017, when former Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, investigated BOE board members’ abuse of agency resources. The board forced 113 employees to perform functions unrelated to their jobs, like parking lot duty, and paid $130,000 for a single member’s office furniture. While Cohen was not a board member at the time, she later tried to justify her job even though current California controller Betty Yee and treasurer Fiona Ma, both Democrats, wanted to gut the BOE.
Cohen seems perplexed about the role of state controller, saying she’d be good at it because she can stand up to the private sector. But California’s business community—from Boyle Heights to San Jose to Little Saigon—didn’t issue some $20 billion in checks to known criminals during the pandemic. The California government did. Would a tax collector stand up to a tax-hungry government already under fire for corruption and cronyism?
Fitness for Office
Cohen can’t manage her own finances. Multiple press outlets have reported her being delinquent on paying taxes and licensing fees for her own business, resulting in its suspension in 2021. Cohen explained that she did not get notices because she moved. It is true that many state agencies were in disarray during the pandemic.
But Cohen’s problems are a part of a pattern, not one-offs. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Cohen also walked away from a home which she purchased with no skin in the game. Most voters understand that the real estate market is cyclical. But Cohen initiated the foreclosure process on her own home by deliberately defaulting on payments to her lender when she didn’t want to ride out the ups and downs of the market. While borrowers typically renegotiate with their lenders in good faith for loan modifications when facing hard times, by Cohen’s own account, she was not facing financial hardship. Cohen says that she can relate to the pain that underwater borrowers feel, which is insulting to voters who truly know the hardship of facing foreclosure.
Additionally, California borrowers—from tech entrepreneurs to entertainment executives—are informed. They understand that when purchasing anything with no money down, they’re underwater from day one because they have no equity, pay higher interest rates, and could lose money when selling even if the market goes up because they must cover selling fees. Cohen simply walked away from the promissory note she signed. She was just a deadbeat buyer.
Did Taxpayers Bail Out Cohen?
The irony in Cohen’s story is that California voters likely paid the personal bills that Cohen chose not to pay. Taxpayers bailed out those irresponsible banks that were “too big to fail” in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. Many banks extended mortgages to unassuming subprime victims, but they also lent to some irrational borrowers who took on unrealistic risks when they expected home prices to continually rise but walked away when those expectations did not pan out.
While California voters are accustomed to hearing about corporations taking advantage of consumers, it’s a whole new level when consumers fleece corporations, stick taxpayers with the bill, then cry foul when asking taxpayers for a promotion. That’s what Cohen did.
Fighter Who Doesn’t Show Up
Now Cohen is telling voters that she will fight for them because she has a spine of steel.
But to fight, one must first show up.
Cohen had the worst attendance record of any member while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In the controller race, she won’t even show up to debate her opponent. How can she face anyone in a battlefield if she can’t even face him up on stage? This is despite numerous calls from the press and voters for debates between her and Chen.
As some noted, Cohen’s financial history alone causes deep concern, but may not necessarily disqualify her from public service given today’s low bar. No human is immune to making poor choices.
Critically, it’s clear that Cohen does not have a growth mindset. She is obnoxious under fire; recently, she told the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that it’s “bullshit” to question her independence and qualifications. Cohen is confused about the key functions of the controller’s office, which is to protect taxpayers’ money, not government jobs. And she continues to show disdain for voters by not debating her opponent. All told, it’s clear that Cohen won’t keep her word and will be a lapdog for Sacramento insiders, not a watchdog for voters.