UPDATE: With 100 percent of state precincts counted, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin wins a spot on the November ballot. Speaker John Perez and unknown Republican David Evans are within 2.400 votes of each other, vying for the second spot on the ballot. See below.
Betty Yee, Ashley Swearengin and a relatively unknown Republican, David Evans, are pushing California Speaker John Perez into a tie for third place for California Controller in early returns, mostly absentee ballots. Evans' solid showing in absentees is somewhat unexpected in the fight to replace the popular outgoing Controller John Chiang.
The early numbers: 23.7 percent Yee, 22 percent Swearengin, 21.4 percent Evans, 21.4 percent Perez.
This race is not normally a big deal in California because it's been held by establishment Democrats since 1975. But when normally Democratic editorial boards such as the Los Angeles Times started swooning over GOP Mayor of Fresno Ashley Swearengin, it gave a tiny burst of hope to the badly hammered California Republican Party.
Do the Republicans have a crack at statewide office in November after years in the desert? Is Perez out of this?
Probably not - but in the new "top two" open primary system ushered in by California voters, who got sick of the entrenched parties and their even more entrenched lifelong politicians, Swearengin has attracted a lot of attention. If she wins one of the top two spots in this primary, this will be a nationally watched race and she could become a GOP rising star.
Betty Yee, who is a member of the state taxation body known as the Board of Equalization, is also known as a budget and fiscal expert who delivers good and bad news with fairness and professionalism.
Yee, a fixture in Sacramento government, is known for standing up to Gov. Gray Davis in the early 2000s as the state rang up a staggering $25 billion deficit, which ultimately fueled Davis' historic recall.
Either woman could make life miserable between now and November for John A. Perez, the up-from-nowhere politician who, as Antonio Villaraigosa's first cousin, was plucked from his longtime job as a union leader to run for a Los Angeles state assembly district.
Perez's move into that assembly district caused some controversy - and complaints of back-room king-making on the part of Villaraigosa - when the candidates who had been ready to face off for that seat both vanished from the race, creating a cakewalk for Perez.
Perez has ably used his connections with big employee unions and Villaraigosa in Sacramento, getting elected Speaker by the rest of the 80-member state assembly and pushing through a number of important legislative bills. He has not gotten caught up in any of the scandals that have racked Sacramento.
But voters may get nervous in November about Perez's fiscal position, given his huge money infusions from state worker unions - the very unions the next controller will have to face, and probably wrangle with, as California tries to find a way to control its billions of dollars in state worker pension debts.
Updated at 10 p.m.:
This can't be making the massive, multimillion-dollar Perez camp happy right now: the Speaker of the Assembly is in fourth place in the absentee ballot count/early count of fresh votes from polling places today.
The numbers: Pérez 20 percent, Yee 21.9 percent, Evans 22.9 percent and Swearengin 23.7 percent.
Updated at 11 p.m.:
Insiders in Sacramento predicted Perez would lead this race. But with more than one-third of the precincts counted statewide, the Speaker is stuck in fourth place.
Possible explanation: The L.A. County Registrar of Voters is way, way, way behind in counting the voter-rich Westside of Los Angeles, and other areas are lagging too. Maybe Perez will surge ahead later. But for now: John A. Pérez 429,600 votes or 20.5%, Betty T. Yee 461,223 or 22%, David Evans 469,299 or 22.4% and Ashley Swearengin 494,359 or 23.6%.
Updated at 11:49 p.m.:
The numbers at this hour have the two Republicans ahead of the two Democrats. The current tallies are: John A. Pérez 495,282 votes or 20.9%, Betty T. Yee 516,848 or 21.8%, David Evans 527,895 or 22.2%, and Ashley Swearengin still leading with 569,062 or 24%.
Updated at 3:10 a.m.:
Mayor Swearengin appears to be solidly in front with 98.9 percent of votes counted, drawing 713,857 votes or 24.4%. Perez is stuck in a fight for second place if he's going to meet Swearengin on the November ballot. If these numbers hold it's shaping up as quite an upset for the Democrats, although at least one poll did say the Fresno mayor would be the victor.
The fight for second place: John A. Pérez, 634,266 votes or 21.7%, David Evans 633,137 votes or 21.6% and Betty T. Yee, Betty 628,592 votes or 21.5%.
Is there some glimmer of hope for the Republicans here? Said another way, the two leading Republicans attracted 1.35 million votes and the two leading Democrats attracted 1.26 million votes.
The real "top two' won't be known for days while election officials count all the last-minute provisional and absentee ballots. But this race is a message that for all his connections, John A. Perez is weak outside the world of Sacramento, and that moderate Republican Swearengin apparently has legs.
Updated at 12:16 p.m.:
Swearengin won a spot in the November runoff.
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But second place - whose winner also advances to the November ballot - is still too close to call. About 2,400 votes separate Speaker John A. Perez, who has 638,545 votes, from surprise contender David Evans, with 636,109. Evans is a true dark horse, a CPA and flight instructor who was mayor of the rundown high desert town of California City. Democrat Betty Yee, a fiscal expert on the State Board of Equalization, trails with 632,902.
One Republican consultant offers a theory about why the well-known, heavily financed Perez, touted by some as an emerging national Latino figure, can barely hold his own against a Republican unknown:
"John Perez left hardly a trace as Speaker - a lot more like Cruz Bustamante that anyone wants to admit," says the consultant. The public "doesn't follow what goes on in Sacramento." Bustamante is noted for his weak speakership in the late 1990s, when the state assembly approved massive new spending - leading to billions of dollars in state deficits that ultimately helped topple Gov. Gray Davis.
Also contributing to this article was Ani Ucar.