Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the Republican candidate for state controller, has been attracting attention lately by ignoring the niceties of politics.
Some of it is, no doubt, calculated; she is, after all, running for office. Still, independent streaks are as common as rainstorms in state politics. And in this financial watchdog role, independence could be an asset. For that reason, and others, we endorse Swearengin.
Swearengin, 42, is running against Betty Yee, 56, to replace termed-out Controller John Chiang. Yee is a Democratic member of the Board of Equalization and appears to be a thoroughly competent candidate.
But Swearengin brings something else to the table. Elected Fresno mayor in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, Swearengin proved she could manage a large organization through difficult times. Few cities were harder hit in the recession. Swearengin and the City Council cut spending, clashed with employee unions by outsourcing garbage collection and avoided bankruptcy – no small feat.
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Unlike most Republicans, Swearengin supports high-speed rail, seeing it as a way to boost the San Joaquin Valley economy. That puts her at odds with the state’s most influential Republican – House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield – and Republican gubernatorial nominee Neel Kashkari, who calls it the “crazy train.”
Perhaps that explains Swearengin’s refusal to endorse Kashkari at the GOP convention. California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte called that “felony stupid.” Perhaps. But Swearengin isn’t running for controller of the Republican Party – she’s running to be controller of California.
Yee has an impressive background. After working as a legislative aide in the 1990s, she rose to second in command in the state Department of Finance, writing budgets for Gov. Gray Davis. She was known as the voice of caution. She became an aide to Board of Equalization member Carole Migden and was appointed to fill the vacancy when Migden departed. Yee was elected in 2006 and again in 2010.
The controller is responsible for paying the state’s bills, and has an audit role. Most importantly, the controller sits on influential state boards such as the Board of Equalization, which functions as a tax court. The board rules on disputes involving sales, property and income taxes, and its decisions can be worth tens of millions of dollars.
The controller also sits on the board that oversees the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. In August, the CalPERS board voted 7-5 to water down the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2012, allowing extra pay given for temporary promotions to be counted toward pensions. Gov. Jerry Brown was against it.
Yee said she would have sided with the majority, counting the extra pay. Swearengin said she would have voted against it. California must find fair ways to curb pension costs, or else more cities could go the way of Stockton by declaring bankruptcy.
As controller, Swearengin could help tip that balance. That is reason enough to support her.