The contest pits Democrat Malia Cohen against Republican Lanhee Chen, who hopes to break his party’s losing streak in statewide races.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Democrat Malia Cohen led California’s race for comptroller, with early returns Tuesday night quashing GOP hopes of winning a statewide post for the first time since 2006.

Cohen, who sits on a state tax board, led Republican Lanhee Chen with 57% of the vote after about 30% of the ballots were counted.

The comptroller, a position held since 2015 by Democrat Betty Yee, is the state’s chief financial officer with the power to disburse state funds and audit government agencies. The Comptroller also sits on more than 70 boards and commissions, including one that encourages renewable energy generation and another that grants bonds to nonprofit colleges.

Chen, a former political adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, prevailed in the June primary, but the four Democrats running against him collectively won more votes. He presented himself as someone who would be an independent watchdog of state finances.

A policy officer on leave from the conservative think tank Hoover Institution, Chen is fighting to end his party’s 16-game losing streak in statewide races.

In an interview last month with KCRA-TV, Chen said Californians deserve more clarity about where their taxpayers’ money is going.

“I can’t think of a more important project to get the state back on track than an office that’s supposed to be a watchdog for taxpayers, but too often has been just a rubber stamp” , Chen said.

Cohen, former chairman of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ budget and finance committee, hopes to make it easier to report fraud after more than $20 billion in fraudulent unemployment benefits were paid out during the pandemic. She wants to use her auditing power to identify problems within the agencies and propose solutions to prevent them from happening again.

If elected, Cohen would be the state’s first black comptroller.

“I also feel a responsibility to uplift and inspire other women who want to run for office, other members especially from communities of color who also want to run for office,” Cohen said in an interview. with CalMatters.

The race has garnered GOP attention, support and money inside and outside the state with nearly double the number of Democrats registered as Republicans. Chen has raised $3.3 million in campaign contributions for the year through the October reporting deadline, doubling what Cohen has raised in that period. He even brought in more money than Brian Dahle, the Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Chen waited until after the primary race to admit he hadn’t voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 or 2020. The Cohen campaign has tried to tie him to Republicans pushing for anti-abortion legislation, even s he says he supports abortion access, and the comptroller is not responsible for pushing abortion policy back and forth.

Ahead of Election Day, Chen’s campaign questioned Cohen’s financial background after the Los Angeles Times reported that a condo she purchased in 2006 had been seized and a business license had been suspended. for tax matters. Cohen called the condominium foreclosure attacks exploitative and said the suspension of the business license resulted from a change of address.

Sophie Austin is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues. Follow Austin on Twitter: @sophieadanna

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