reporting from sacramento — Each leading candidate for state controller says the unfolding scandal in the city of Bell clearly demonstrates the same thing: that he's the right guy for the job.
State Controller John Chiang, the Democratic incumbent, says his office's audits have forced the return of millions of dollars in illegal taxes and have uncovered affordable housing funds that were misused "as a self-indulgent slush fund" to bankroll city officials' exorbitant salaries and perks.
Chiang's lone campaign TV ad touts his Bell findings and features him wielding a red pencil.
But state Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark, the GOP challenger, said Chiang "hasn't been active" enough in auditing spending and rooting out corruption in California.
"It's the media that really exposes those stories" and Chiang who jumps to action only afterward, said Strickland. The Republican calls himself the better candidate to "maximize those few precious dollars that do come to Sacramento."
Chiang and Strickland know each other well; this year's race is a rematch of their contest four years ago. The public knows far less about either of them or the job — serving as California's chief fiscal officer — they seek. It's a powerful post, with broad authority to audit state spending and seats on influential pension and tax boards and the State Lands Commission, which makes crucial decisions on offshore oil drilling.
Chiang has parlayed the position into some notoriety. He landed a speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And the soft-spoken former Internal Revenue Service attorney made his name bigger by blockading parts of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's agenda, suing to stop him from imposing money-saving pay cuts and furloughs on state workers.
That has earned Chiang, 48, the admiration of powerful labor unions, which have been among his most generous contributors. Labor-backed groups spent roughly $3.5 million on his 2006 election.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, he casts himself as a capable nuts-and-bolts administrator of the state's depleted treasury.
"I've called the governor and Legislature out on their inability to get the budget in place," he said.
Among his proudest achievements, Chiang said, was overhauling the state's unclaimed property program, returning $1.3 billion abandoned by Californians in bank accounts and stray deposit boxes. And he said his audits uncovered $2.4 billion in misspending.
Strickland, 40, was first elected to the state Assembly at 28 and was then the youngest member of that body. He has since staked out a position as a conservative partisan in Sacramento.
He has been a fierce anti-tax advocate. He introduced unsuccessful legislation this year that would have allowed California voters to hold a referendum on the federal healthcare overhaul passed by Congress. Between his service in the Assembly and his time in the Senate, Strickland was president of the California Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that seeks to elect fiscal conservatives.
While Chiang has won plaudits and garnered campaign funds from labor unions, Strickland has been a favorite of the business lobby. Businesses and other interests poured $1.6 million into independent efforts to elect him to the Senate in 2008.
In that campaign, Strickland was fined $3,000 by California's ethics watchdog agency and rebuked in harsh terms for distributing a negative mailer that did not identify who had paid for it. In the settlement, the Fair Political Practices Commission said the mailer's missing disclaimer "appears to be at worst intentional and at best negligent."
Strickland previously came under fire for an arrangement in which he and his wife, Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Moorpark), directed campaign funds into each other's consulting and fundraising firms, essentially boosting their income through political donations. He later had a change of heart and wrote a law banning the practice.
After losing by 10 percentage points in 2006, Strickland remains an underdog. No Republican has been elected controller since 1970. But Strickland says this year's political climate is different.
If he wins, he said, he will push to eliminate wasteful state boards and commissions, a long-stalled idea in Sacramento, and complete the overdue upgrade of an antiquated computer system that Chiang has blamed for his inability to process temporary pay cuts.
Strickland pointed to a lawsuit he filed against Gov. Gray Davis nearly a decade ago to pry open details of costly energy contracts as evidence that he has the chops to eliminate the waste, fraud and abuse so many politicians rail against.
Chiang has spent more than $2 million on his campaign this year and Strickland more than $1.2 million, records show. Each had slightly more than $200,000 on hand for the final days of the campaign.
Several minor-party candidates are also running for controller: Ross D. Frankel of the Green Party, Andrew Favor of the Libertarian Party, Lawrence G. Beliz of the American Independent Party and Karen Martinez of the Peace and Freedom Party.