John Perez seemed to have it all as he ran for state controller -- a bankroll far bigger than those of his rivals, the political clout after four years as Assembly speaker and the Democratic stronghold of Los Angeles as his home base.

Yet the June primary election's initial tally found him 481 votes behind out of more than 4 million cast, behind Democratic rival Betty Yee, a Board of Equalization member from Alameda. Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, finished first.

Now Perez has demanded a recount in 15 counties, launching California's first-ever recount for a statewide office -- a process that critics say can let better-funded candidates try to buy their way out of defeat. The recount began Friday after Secretary of State Debra Brown certified the election.

John Perez has demanded a recount for the state controller’s race in 15 California counties.
John Perez has demanded a recount for the state controller's race in 15 California counties. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP file photo)

California law lets Perez choose which counties are recounted, and in what order. He must pay for the recount as it goes, but can stop it at any time -- though Yee can promptly request one too. It's a time-consuming process on a hard deadline: The state must print ballots for November's election in time to start mailing them out Sept. 5 to overseas and military voters.

Perez argues that the razor-thin margin makes it "of the utmost importance that an additional, carefully conducted review of the ballots be undertaken to ensure that every vote is counted." But Yee counters that "cherry-picking only the 15 counties that he won, and sorting the precincts within the counties to reflect his strongest areas, indicates that he has no interest in a fair and impartial recount."

While most Californians have little idea what the controller does, keeping the books of the world's eighth-largest economy is nothing to sneeze at. He or she also sits on 81 state boards and commissions, including those that run the state's huge pension funds, administer its taxes, control its public lands, and fund school facilities, transportation and alternative energy projects.

It's among California's most influential posts, and can be a steppingstone to higher office. Past controllers have included Gov. Gray Davis and U.S. Sens. Alan Cranston and Thomas Kuchel.

Perez, 44, is a former union political director, and state worker unions hope he'll be more likely than Yee -- or incumbent John Chiang -- to side with them on public pensions, salary disclosures and other matters.

So never before has 0.012 percent of the vote hurt so much or caused so much second-guessing.

"When you're talking about 500 votes ... you're thinking about everything you possibly could've done, everywhere you could've spent money, endorsements you could've gotten," said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.

Gale Kaufman, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, said down-ticket races in low-turnout elections with candidates who've never sought statewide office before can be "a complete crapshoot," with dozens of factors contributing to victory or loss.

Perez's time as Assembly speaker didn't give him automatic name recognition among most voters, she said, and actually might have been more hindrance than help given voters' low opinion of the Legislature.

The average voter can't name a Board of Equalization member, either. But more people had voted for Yee before -- she represents 21 counties in Northern and Central California. Perez represents just one Assembly district.

Perez parlayed his background as a union political strategist -- and the political influence of his cousin, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- into an Assembly seat and, two years later, the speaker's chair. Yee is a longtime numbers wonk, from her days as a legislative committee staffer through a stint as the state's deputy finance director to her time at the Board of Equalization, which administers California's sales tax, among others.

Yee, 56, committed to this race much earlier, announcing her campaign staff in April 2013 and laying a lot of groundwork last year. Perez launched his campaign in October, four months after Treasurer Bill Lockyer -- a California Democratic powerhouse with millions to spend on the controller's race -- announced he wouldn't run.

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, trying to maintain unity, had asked statewide candidates not to seek the party's endorsement. When Perez pushed ahead anyway, Yee mustered enough support to deny Perez the 60 percent of convention delegates he needed to win the endorsement. After that vote, Yee's convention speech played upon concerns that Perez might be too political for a job that many Californians believe should be nonpartisan.

"Democrats, we are just as guilty of getting sucked into the influence of money and power about which we criticize Republicans," she said at the time. "It is time we have politics shaped by our values, rather than our values shaped by politics."

Perez started 2014 with $1.87 million banked for the race, Yee with $502,000. Perez outraised and outspent Yee from January through May 17, and they entered the campaign's final weeks with $1.84 million and $116,000 left, respectively. Independent spending favored Perez, too: State-worker unions spent $48,500 on his behalf, while the National Organization for Women's California chapter spent $7,300 for Yee.

But "in terms of a fundraising lead, you have to have a really huge one in a state as big as this for it to make a difference," said Matt Rodriguez, a Democratic strategist and a fellow at the University of Southern California's Unruh Institute of Politics. Perez's bankroll still wasn't big enough to pay for the kind of polling, micro-targeting of voters and advertising he would need to lock down a statewide race like this, he said.

Also, Perez chose not to abide by the state's $5.4 million campaign spending cap, so he couldn't place a candidate statement in the official voter information guide. He never came near hitting the cap, and when voters consulted the guide, the only Democrat they learned about was Yee.

"That is very important in off-year elections. Often times, the people who do bother to vote, that's the only thing they're going to look at," said Jessica Levinson, an election law and governance expert at Loyola Law School.

But Perez goes into the recount looking stronger, given the money he can raise and spend.

Any voter can request a recount in any number of counties in any order, but he or she must pay the costs daily; if the recount changes the election's result, the money is refunded. The request can be for a machine recount or for a by-hand review by election officials. And if the recount changes the tally, the other candidate can then demand a recount, too.

Perez asked for hand recounts in 15 counties where he beat Yee -- in order: Lake, Napa, San Mateo, Stanislaus, Merced, Fresno, Kings, Tulare, Kern, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial -- at an estimated $3 million cost. If he comes out on top and Yee has the option to request her own recount, "she's not going to have the funds to be able to do this," said Rodriguez, who worked on Perez's 2008 Assembly race.

Levinson said that's "very distressing, because getting votes counted should have absolutely nothing to do with financial ability."

"A recount should be a full recount, and it's troublesome to think about cherry-picking votes," she said. "It looks like you're playing politics with the most important right that we have to exercise our power in a democracy."

THE BATTLE CONTINUES
Betty Yee
Party: Democratic
Age: 56
Home: Alameda
Experience: Board of Equalization member, 2006-present; acting member, 2004-2006; chief deputy to board member Carole Migden, 2003-2004; chief deputy budget director for Gov. Gray Davis, 1999-2003; senior staff positions on several committees in both houses of the Legislature
Education: Bachelor's in sociology, 1979, UC Berkeley; master's in public administration, 1981, Golden Gate University

John Perez
Party: Democratic
Age: 44
Home: Los Angeles
Experience: Assemblyman, 2008-present; Assembly speaker, 2010-2014; political director, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 324 (2001-2008) and California Labor Federation (2000-01)
Education: Attended UC Berkeley


Unprecedented recount
California has never had a recount in an election for statewide office before, but has done recounts for statewide ballot measures:
In July 2012, a San Francisco surgeon demanded a recount of some Los Angeles and Orange County precincts for Proposition 29, a $1-per-pack cigarette tax to fund cancer research that had been narrowly defeated; another voter requested Proposition 29's votes recounted in Placer County. Neither changed the election's outcome.
In December 2012, supporters of Proposition 37 -- a measure to require labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms -- demanded recounts in Orange and Sierra counties, but abandoned the effort after they found out a Fresno County recount would be too costly.