SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Facing long odds in unseating a popular governor, the California Republican Party has looked to an obscure financial post as a chance for a rising GOP star to win statewide office.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin says voters should cross-party lines to elect an outsider who helped saved a city from the brink of bankruptcy. Betty Yee, a Democratic member of the state tax board, is running for state controller as an apolitical expert in state finances.
The controller's primary job is managing the state's cash flows. The post also doubles as a financial watchdog by auditing various government programs, deciding whether budgets are balanced. The controller also sits on dozens of boards that oversee public pensions, land use and the coastline.
NAME - Betty Yee
AGE-BIRTH DATE-BIRTHPLACE - 54; Oct. 19, 1959; San Francisco.
PARTY - Democratic.
EXPERIENCE -Served on the Board of Equalization since 2004. Formerly a top budget official in Gov. Gray Davis' administration and legislative staffer focused on financial issues.
EDUCATION - Bachelor's degree from University of Berkeley; Master's in public administration, Golden Gate University.
FAMILY - Single.
QUOTE- "I may be an insider ... but I'm an insider who's been independent throughout my career. I will call my shots as I see them."
NAME - Ashley Swearengin
AGE-BIRTH DATE-BIRTHPLACE - 42; May 24, 1972; Fort Worth; Texas.
PARTY - Republican.
EXPERIENCE -Served as mayor of Fresno since 2008. Previously served in Central Valley economic development organizations, including as lead executive for the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, California State University, Regionals Jobs Initiative and Fresno State University's Office of Community and Economic Development.
EDUCATION - Bachelor's and master's degree in business administration from California State University, Fresno.
FAMILY - Married, two children.
WEBSITE - www.ashleyforca.com
QUOTE - "This job requires independence, free from one political party, a major political party in power here in Sacramento."
The race already has shaken up an otherwise quiet election cycle. The June primary ended in one of the closest finishes in California history after a recount. Swearengin placed first, and Yee narrowly nabbed second place after pulling ahead of her well-financed Democratic opponent John Perez, a former Assembly speaker, by less than 500 votes.
Political strategists say both candidates face steep challenges in making their cases to millions of voters who typically vote by party in such low-profile races. Swearengin has been lagging in polls as she seeks to overcome the Democrats' big advantage in voter registration.
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"You need to get the crossover vote," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes state and congressional races in California. "That takes a lot of money, a lot of targeting and a lot of persuasion to do so."
Swearengin has raised more than $800,000 to Yee's $1.1 million as of Sept. 24, but elevating her profile in a statewide race will cost millions. While Republican strategists say more votes for GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari would help the controller's race, Swearengin has distanced herself from the GOP.
She has refused to endorse Kashkari, who has called the high-speed rail project she supports a "crazy train" and spent a week posing as a homeless man in Fresno to highlight California's lagging economy. She did not say "Republican" or "GOP" in her keynote address at the party's fall convention, instead focusing on her record in Fresno.
Swearengin touts cutting city expenses, honest accounting that revealed internal debt and charting a sustainability plan since she was elected mayor in 2008. In 2012, municipal investors had identified Fresno, with little cash on hand, at risk of joining a handful of other California cities in declaring bankruptcy.
"We were on the razor's edge for years at a time, and I found a way to turn the agency around," Swearengin said. "It's precisely the type of experience needed in dealing with the state's financial situation."
In January, Moody's downgraded Fresno's credit rating, a measure of stability to investors, citing "persistent weaknesses" in the city economy and an "exceedingly weak balance sheet." Swearengin says the firm didn't take into account how Fresno is years ahead of schedule in erasing some debt and is on track to replenish depleted reserves by 2019.
Yet she has taken steps to remove references to her city on the ballot by not submitting a ballot statement and re-labeling herself as "Mayor/CEO" to refer to her strong-mayor status.
The financial picture has since brightened, with Moody's updating its assessment to positive in mid-September. It said a recovering economy and "careful management" had enabled Fresno to post surpluses and be in position to recover fully from the recession in three to five years.
Yee says she is the better candidate to navigate the complex labyrinth of state finances. Since 2004, she has served on the State Board of Equalization, interpreting state tax law for the agency that collects $50 billion in revenue a year. She also was a top budget official in Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' administration and a longtime fiscal staffer in the Legislature.
"An outsider may be great, but if you don't know how things are going to work, it really isn't going to be beneficial to the state," Yee said. "I may be an insider ... but I'm an insider who's been independent throughout my career."
Yee is pushing for comprehensive tax reform so the state is less dependent on personal income taxes from a small group of wealthy Californians, but demurs on detailing what that would mean for California homeowners and others. Yee also wants to expand the office's auditing of government programs, cities and counties. She cited the state parks department hiding $54 million in two special funds for more than a decade as a failure in oversight.
"We need to do better because that does not elevate the public's confidence," Yee said.
Swearengin says as controller, she would advocate for reducing the state's long-term liabilities, roughly $300 billion by official estimates, and for improving the business climate with an annual "competitiveness audit." She says California's financial stability is threatened by calls for spending on new programs.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.
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