In the crowded California controller primary, Yvonne Yiu is betting that spending millions of her own money is her ticket to the top two. But the record of self-funded candidates in statewide races is mixed.
In most California elections, the race for state comptroller doesn’t get much attention.
But this year it is one of the hottest races. And the political dynamics make her unpredictable, potentially paving the way for a candidate who doesn’t campaign much â but spends millions of her own money.
Some strategists believe Lanhee Chen, the lone Republican in the June 7 primary, is likely to clinch one of two spots in the November ballot. That would have four Democrats battling for second place.
There’s Malia Cohen, chair of the board of supervisors, who has the endorsement of the California Democratic Party. There’s also Steve Glazer, a state senator from the Bay Area who poses as an independent watchdog who will oppose party bosses.
There’s Ron Galperin, who is Los Angeles’ city comptroller â the “golden ballot designation,” he says, because he’s the only candidate with “controller” next to his name. He also says he’s well known in Los Angeles and hopes to capitalize on the high turnout for the high profile mayoral race.
And then there’s Yvonne Yiu, currently a city council member and former mayor of Monterey Park (pop. 60,000) in the San Gabriel Valley. A longtime financial adviser, she has already invested about $5.7 million of her own money in her campaign, including a $1.2 million donation last Thursday.
That’s 95% of his total fundraising of $6 million so far. The other four main contenders have raised around $7 million â combined.
The amount of money she’s willing to spend on a run-down has raised eyebrows â and made she an outlier among all the candidates vying for the state office in the primary.
A stealthy candidate?
On May 5, three days after Politico rounded up a proposed U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the monument Roe v. Wade DecisionCohen called on Chen to declare his position on abortion rights once and for all. Galperin and Glazier soon followed.
The comptroller doesn’t make state policy, but as California prepares to become a sanctuary for those seeking abortions, state spending may fall within the comptroller’s limited jurisdiction. Yet campaigning on abortion rights could boost a candidate’s name recognition. Democrats hope that will help them at the polls, outweighing voter concerns such as crime, homelessness and inflation.
But while the other contestants sought attention, Yiu stayed away.
This fits with the stealthier approach she’s taken so far. In her own words, she’s the most unknown candidate â and unlike the other candidates, she’s not interested in using the comptroller’s office as a springboard.
“I want to do what I’m good at, which is finance,” she said in an interview with the Sacramento bee.
It’s not that she doesn’t campaign at all. For its 50th anniversary last October, Yiu launched a fundraiser. She also attended the state Democratic Party convention in March and promoted him for party endorsement. She posted tips on financial literacy on her Instagram page, touted her recommendations on her Facebook page and wooed Asian American voters via events, groups and targeted media.
She declined to be interviewed for this story. When asked why she was willing to spend so much of her own money to become a comptroller, she replied via email that as an immigrant and a woman, she has been underestimated her entire career and has always counted on itself.
“When I announced my campaign for state comptroller, I was again pushed aside – by political insiders, party elites and special interest groups. I decided to do what I always did when I wanted something. I relied on myself to get the job done,” she told CalMatters.
“The fact that I put my own money into this race makes me independent, and voters will never have to question whether I have their best interests at heart.”
Unlike the other leading controller candidates, she also declined in-person video interviews with CalMatters for its voter guide, submitting written responses instead.
She doesn’t talk inside either campaign announcements â instead, let a narrator introduce her to seemingly random voters and promote her campaign slogan: “Yiu is for you.”
But Yiu says she doesn’t believe the statewide lack of name recognition is a problem, saying voters aren’t very familiar with the candidates running. If the media endorsements are any indication, the three-way split among the top contenders shows that it’s anyone’s game.
âI am not a traditional candidate who has made his career in politics. The thing is, I’m not known to political insiders,â Yiu said in the email. âMy strength, however, lies in my background, experience and skills which I believe are what voters are looking for in a state comptroller â someone who understands finance, knows how to manage investments and can save money. taxpayers’ money.”
She’s not the first statewide candidate to take a somewhat “stealth” approach to campaigning, relying primarily on TV ads and direct mail to win over voters. But this strategy has its limits.
Matt Shupe, a political strategist for several Republican candidates and campaigns, said the power of TV ads only goes so far.
âCampaigns will always be limited by a limited amount of funds, and how those resources are mobilized is among the most important decisions a campaign makes. cord and who are on Hulu and Netflix,” Shupe said.
âSimilarly, if you only buy direct mail, you risk missing out on social media voters. Having the widest range of communications is vital and therein lies the power of earned media.â
Political strategist Kevin Spillane said while spending $4 million on TV ads will have an impact, there’s no guarantee it’ll be enough.
In a ballot race like the comptroller, ballot designation and partisanship play key roles.
“His opponents each have individual spaces and name identification,” Spillane said, citing Galperin’s “controller” title and the reputations Glazer and Cohen have built in the Bay Area. “It’s worth more than a new face coming in and trying to buy an office in those areas.”
The lessons of self-financing
Yiu came to the United States from Hong Kong when she was 16 after her father died. She received her undergraduate degree in economics from UCLA and her master’s degree in finance from Loyola Marymount University.
She says she has never forgotten the difficulties her mother faced raising her three daughters on her own. It’s something she campaigns on â promoting financial literacy for women and people of color.
Yiu has worked as a financial advisor and asset manager for companies such as Merill Lynch, E*Trade Financial, Citicorp Investment Services and Charles Schwab. She also founded her own investment and brokerage firm which she says manages $500 million in assets.
While maintaining retired from finance, she worked part-time as an arbitrator and expert witness for the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a private company that aims to self-regulate the financial industry. (This authority has already censured and fined Yiu’s own company for improperly depositing investor funds in a real estate trust account belonging to one of the fund’s leading members.)
Now she is using some of that wealth to boost her campaign.
So what is the power of self-financing?
In 2018, he propelled Republican John Cox into the top two for governor, although he ultimately lost easily to Democrat Gavin Newsom.
Tim Rosales, who was Cox’s campaign manager, said a candidate’s money offered the “luxury” of being able to bypass the press and pay for direct communication with voters.
âThat can be a big differentiator, especially when you have a crowded field and unknown applicants and split donors,â he said. “Being able to invest in your own campaign to a large extent gives you a boost.”
“People need to know you have skin in the game” if you don’t have a political background, Rosales added. “It shows confidence, and it shows that you really believe you can do it.”
Also in 2018, Eleni Kounalakis, a political unknown and executive of one of California’s largest land development companies, won the election for lieutenant governor. after spending $7.7 million of his own money, and gaining the help of a $5 million independent spending effort funded by his father. This year, Kounalakis faces only token opposition for his re-election.
Money isn’t everything, however. In California, it would take a lot more money than Yiu invested in a statewide media campaign, said Galperin, one of his Democratic contenders.
And, he told CalMatters, “California people generally don’t always, but not always, like people just buying an election.”
There’s also a long history of self-funded candidates who didn’t win: Republican Bill Simon, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2002; Democrat Steve Westly, who lost in the 2006 gubernatorial primary; and Republican Meg Whitman, who spent a record $140 million on his campaignsecuring the nomination, but losing to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2010.
Rosales, the consultant, also cited the example of Al Checchi, who spent $40 million of his own money in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary and ended up losing to Gray Davis, who had a strong base of support within the party from his long career.
“Money gets you in the conversation,” Rosales said, “but it doesn’t necessarily win elections.”
CalMatters reporter Alexei Koseff contributed to this story.
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