In politics, the electoral odds can change overnight. Just ask Betty Yee and John Pérez.

California State Controller SealAfter months of it seeming as though their Democratic intraparty battle to be state controller could — under California’s top two primary system — go all the way to November, the dynamic quickly changed on March 5, when a heavyweight Republican threw her hat in the ring.

The decision by Ashley Swearengin, the incumbent mayor of Fresno, to run for the job of California’s top fiscal official left even would-be opponents realizing that GOP voters will probably fall in line behind her on June 3 rather than play the field. If so, that leaves only one spot for a Democrat on the fall ballot.

(The incumbent controller, John Chiang, can’t run for re-election due to term limits and is instead running for state treasurer.)

“I believe it’ll be me, but that remains to be seen,” says Assemblyman John Pérez (D-Los Angeles).

Pérez is perhaps the best-known of all the candidates for controller. He served as speaker of the state Assembly from 2010 until earlier this month, and as such was one of the architects of the last four state budgets. Pérez also attracted headlines for individual efforts on an expanded rainy day reserve fund and for crafting 2012’s new college scholarship program for students from middle-class families.

But the former speaker has placed third in public polls on the race for controller. Swearengin has come in first, with second place being held by the candidate who entered the race before everyone else: Democrat Betty Yee.

Yee, a resident of San Francisco, has been a member of the state Board of Equalization since 2005. Before that, she was a fiscal analyst for the board and a top budget aide to former Gov. Gray Davis.

Yee began the race before anyone, but hasn’t raised as much money as others. She says that’s partly because she places her own limits on donations from businesses that might one day bring their issues before the Board of Equalization, the state’s arbiter of many tax disputes.

“I’ve been running a very different kind of campaign,” said Yee.

That campaign pits not just her against Pérez, but also factions of Democrats against each other — from organized labor to community activists and beyond.

“It’s been interesting to see what the race has turned on,” said David Dayen, a longtime activist in the state party who now writes political analysis for a variety of websites.

In particular, Dayen says there’s anger left over from 2012, when Pérez worked for incumbent Democratic assembly members who moved to new districts after the 2011 redistricting — bumping up against some local Democrats who were already running.

“The activists,” said Dayen, “are going to have long memories on all that.”

Pérez says that kind of Democratic angst comes with the job of being a party leader. But he bristles at accusations that his decision to run for controller came so late as to be unfair to Yee.

“I never thought elections were about somebody calling ‘dibs,’ ” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t have the luxury to be a candidate for two years, when I was actually helping negotiate our way out of the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

Yee counters by suggesting the former speaker doesn’t have the right resume.

“I think the legislative process is limited,” she said in reference to Pérez’s experience. “It really doesn’t allow, I think, a full assessment of what’s happening.”

Not to be outdone, Pérez argues Yee should have done more in her role during the Davis administration to manage the state’s finances during the last budget surplus.

“They took in less money than they spent,” he said. “That’s not what you want from the chief fiscal office of the state of California.”

So how will Democrats sort it out? Political analysts think Swearengin, the Republican, will be a formidable general election candidate — an opinion backed up with her recent endorsement by the Los Angeles Times and others.

“I do think it’s going to turn on personal affinity,” said David Dayen on the choice facing his fellow Democrats. “And it’s the importance of labor support [for Pérez], or whether you’re trying to reward Betty Yee for years and years of service to the party.”


John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED's longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento's ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two "Best Of" lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014's list of America's most influential statehouse reporters.

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