In a 70-minute interview with CalMatters, state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat running for California controller, says he knows “where the bodies are buried” from his legislative experience. And he vows to stand up to fellow Democrats in power so he can be an independent watchdog.
Democrat Steve Glazer says he isn’t afraid to speak out against his own party. That, says the Bay Area state senator, is why he’s the best candidate for state controller.
You might consider his last-minute entry into the crowded controller’s race an act of defiance, too. Glazer announced his campaign on March 7, just four days before the filing deadline and right after California’s Democratic Party had made its endorsement for controller.
The job of the state’s chief fiscal officer has been held for seven years by Betty Yee, who is no longer eligible for reelection. Other contenders include Board of Equalization Chairperson Malia Cohen, who won the state Democratic Party endorsement, as well as Democrats Ron Galperin, controller of the city of Los Angeles, and Yvonne Yiu, former mayor of Monterey Park. There’s also Lanhee Chen, a Republican policy advisor who makes the pitch that you need someone who isn’t a member of the dominant party to really be an independent watchdog on the state’s finances.
But the crowded race hasn’t deterred Glazer. In a recent conversation with CalMatters, the senator made his case for the job and for his path to victory. Here are five takeaways:
An independent streak
Glazer doesn’t have the Democratic Party’s endorsement, but said he’s not concerned. After all, he notes, he didn’t have party support for his two successful state Senate campaigns.
Perhaps that’s why he’s unafraid to stand at odds with his party at times. When running in a special election in 2015, Glazer described himself as a pragmatic, pro-business, anti-tax candidate.
He made the case then, as he does now, that Democrats should “regain the mantle” as the fiscally responsible party because they know how important each tax dollar is to fund education and other progressive priorities.
In 2017, Glazer was the only Democrat in the state Senate to vote against a single-payer health care system because he wanted to see more cost-control measures — and also because he believes the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has significantly reduced the number of uninsured in California.
He says he doesn’t take gifts or travel from any special interests — something he calls out other legislators about.
ELECTION 2022: CALIFORNIA
More coverage of the race for controller
➤ How much does Yvonne Yiu want to be California controller? Count the cash (CalMatters)
➤ What would Ron Galperin do as California controller? (CalMatters)
➤ What would Steve Glazer do as California controller? (CalMatters)
➤ What would Malia Cohen do as California controller? (CalMatters)
➤ What would Lanhee Chen do as California controller? (CalMatters)
➤ Controller: Republican Chen, but which Democrat? (CalMatters)
“We’ve had examples of elected leaders at the local level and at the state level involved in corruption and fraud and abuse in their expense budgets, in their travel budgets,” he said. “And I want to be clear that I owe no favor and have no fear about accountability for everyone, including your elected leaders.”
In his mind, that makes him the best candidate: Criticism and recommendations from a fellow Democrat will have much more impact on the Legislature and state agencies than from a Republican.
“We’re in a polarized political world these days. You get criticism from the Republicans, and it’s just partisan spitballs being thrown at the people in power,” Glazer said.
A report from a Democratic controller “gets a lot more attention from the media and from others that, because they know that it’s man bites dog, that you’re not supposed to say things about the administration when your party’s in charge of it,” he said.
His time in the Legislature helps, he adds — and distinguishes him from Chen, who has spent much of his time in academia.
“You don’t have to sit in an ivory tower pretending like you know what’s going on,” Glazer said. “You really have to have some experience to understand where the bodies are buried, or how things are really done. And I have a long record, okay. And you can say, ‘Does experience matter? Does knowledge matter?’ I think it does.”
One function of the controller is to oversee the disbursement of funds to local entities throughout the state.
Glazer pledges more scrutiny of regional agencies that oversee water quality, air quality and transit across city and county lines.
That includes Bay Area Rapid Transit. In 2013 as a candidate for state Assembly, Glazer started a petition to ban transit strikes that fell short of the required signatures. It’s one of the regional agencies that Glazer points to as not having enough accountability, in part because most voters don’t pay attention to elected boards for regional agencies that have them.
“When you’re within a city, you have a much better chance to have that kind of accountability, when you’re elected by that city or by that county,” he said. “But these regional agencies don’t have that.”
As controller, he says he would use audits to review how effectively money is spent at public agencies at the local, regional and state level — in schools (too many of which are failing, he says), at the Employment Development Department and programs to address homelessness.
Last year, Glazer proposed a bill to require oversight of $7 billion in mental health spending in the state — a bill he says hasn’t moved forward because the governor will veto it.
Skeptical on tax reform
While the controller doesn’t implement policy, he or she can make policy recommendations, including on taxes.
Glazer supports the Senate Democrats’ plan to provide a $200-per-person stimulus payment to offset high gas prices.
But while the economy is shifting so that people spend more money on services than on goods, Glazer doesn’t see the need for the state to make any radical changes to the tax code.
Even with the spikes and dips in state tax revenue tied to the stock market, he says he wants to preserve California’s highly progressive income tax system that includes higher rates on the rich, and doesn’t want to do anything “to increase the tax burden on the low and middle income folks in our state to the benefit of the wealthy.”
Plus, he said, “any change like that would likely have to be on the ballot and very likely to be unsuccessful.”
Nor does Glazer believe the tax code needs amending to keep wealthy individuals from leaving the state. “I think that they still love California and all that we have to offer,” he said. “It’s the most dynamic, innovative place in the planet.”
Funding state pensions
The controller sits on nearly 80 boards, including ones that oversee pension funds for public employees and for teachers.
The state faces a significant shortfall in those funds: As of 2020, the state had just two-thirds of the money it had promised.
To address that, Glazer says the state may need to adjust the rate of expected return on investment, which is currently at 6.8% per year. While investment returns hit 21% in the fiscal year that ended June 20, 2021, CalPERS posted a 4.7% return the previous year and has averaged 6.9% over the last 20 years.
The projections of investment earnings are used to calculate contributions from taxpayers and employees. While the governor and Legislature have been paying down the unfunded pension debt, Glazer doesn’t completely rule out lower benefits for future workers to ease the burden on taxpayers and keep CalPERS and CalSTRS solvent.
Employees will have to look at their salary and benefits, including pensions, and “make their own choices, whether that’s a good situation for them,” he said.
As for whether the state should divest any investments from Russia due to the Ukraine invasion, Glazer says he doesn’t believe pension board members should make political statements. He notes that it’s a departure from his own past decisions: As student body president at San Diego State University, he pushed for divesting from South Africa to protest apartheid.
“As controller, I would take the fiduciary responsibility very, very seriously. And that means sometimes putting aside your own personal views,” he said. “Even if you have passion and angst about certain things that are happening in our world, you’ve got to balance that with your responsibilities to get a rate of return for the retirees who are counting on that money.”
On ‘bonus time’
Besides questions on qualifications and priorities, CalMatters has been asking candidates some more personal questions so voters can get to know them better.
Asked about the most difficult thing he’s had to do in his life, Glazer said it was talking to his siblings about their parents’ death.
He said that family history shapes how he lives now. His mother died of cancer at age 57, and his father died suddenly of a heart attack at 55.
“I thought my life would end at 55,” said Glazer, now 64. “And so I lived my life from that time forward with the idea that life is precious. It’s not always how you would like it to be. And so take advantage of every opportunity, do your best, leave the world in a better place, but don’t think it’s going to be necessarily a long ride.”