South Bay gubernatorial hopeful John Chiang is a low-key candidate in an election focused on noise
By Joe Piasecki
On paper, California State Treasurer John Chiang is arguably the most qualified among the six major candidates running for governor in Tuesday’s primary election. As treasurer and before that state controller and before that a member of the Board of Equalization, Chiang leads the pack in terms of government finance expertise and experience running a statewide office. The longtime Torrance resident hasn’t stumbled into any major scandals, and he comes off as a pretty likeable guy.
But if polling is accurate (and it usually is, but not always – remember November 2016?), Chiang would do well to come in fourth behind a pair of ex-mayors who cheated on their wives while in office and a political newcomer pandering to the 30% of registered California voters who backed Trump.
Why should we care? For one, Chiang’s predicament seems to say as much about us as it does about him. He’s a soft-spoken, contemplative guy who hesitates to make grand, sweeping pronouncements or take shots at political rivals (at least until this past month). Voters lining up behind Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Republican businessman John Cox seem to prefer grand, sweeping pronouncements and the occasional potshot. We reward boldness, and we don’t mind being divided.
The Math Guy
Of California’s gubernatorial candidates, Chiang was the only one to specifically reach out to The Argonaut to talk state politics. He and I walked-and-talked the length of Santa Monica Pier on a weekend morning in August, then headed separately to a park in West L.A. where Chiang received the very public endorsement of Rep. Ted Lieu (D – Torrance), who (quite opposite of Chiang) has become a national political star for trashing-talking Trump with aplomb.
“I’m honored to endorse my friend John Chiang. He’s an amazing elected official,” Lieu told me before dashing off to trade barbs on CNN. “As a Board of Equalization member he sponsored more bills into law than any other member in state history; as state controller he made sure California did not default in the darkest days of the recession — helped save our credit rating. And then as state Treasurer he has helped shepherd our economy to the sixth largest in the world [fifth, as of three weeks ago]. He’s effective. He’s smart. He’s courageous.”
Earlier on the pier, Chiang made a pitch for his campaign that I’d best describe as casting fiscal responsibility as a progressive value.
“When you’re fiscally irresponsible,” he said, “you can’t be progressive. You can’t invest in education. You’re wasting dollars for health care. That’s why I’m tough with the buck … because I want to make sure somebody can get the meds they need, because I want to make sure seniors have housing.”
Chiang zeroed in on alleviating wealth inequality as the biggest challenge facing the next governor, and he talked a lot specifically about housing costs. Perhaps his most aggressive campaign promise is to craft and bring to fruition a $9 billion state bond for low-income housing development and $600 million in annual housing tax credits, and that’s on top of the $4 billion bond already destined to appear on the November 2018 ballot.
“We’re 1.5 million units short of affordable housing, and that has real-life consequences. Young people, middle income, and lower-middle income folks are leaving the state because they just can’t make their budgets work. The stories are heartbreaking. And if we’re going to be successful moving forward — you hear this from technology executives, entertainment executives, from people in the agriculture industry — we need to make sure there’s more affordable housing,” Chiang said.
I asked Chiang if he minds being pegged as the “math guy” in the race — the public affairs equivalent of the smart Asian kid stereotype. I wanted to see if he’d push back, but he didn’t. He embraced it.
“Math is important. When you get the math wrong, people pay the price,” he said. “They got the math wrong in 2008-09, so people didn’t get tax refunds on time; the UC Board of Regents and Cal State trustees increased tuition on students. Math is money; money is tied to values. We’ve got to get the math right to make sure we protect California’s values.”
Chiang first took elected office in 1997, taking over for Rep. Brad Sherman (D – Los Angeles), for whom he had been chief of staff after getting his start in politics in the Santa Monica office of now-retired Democratic Rep. Mel Levine.
Over his ensuing two decades in public office, Chiang was in the national spotlight twice — once for refusing to let Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut state employee salaries to federal minimum wage in order to force state legislators to adopt a budget (Chiang won); then for withholding paychecks to state legislators to enforce a constitutional budget deadline. (Sued by legislators of his own party, Chiang lost.)
Compared to Newsom’s national headlines for being the first to grant same-sex marriage licenses (in 2004, when it was broadly unpopular) or Villaraigosa’s recession-era battles at
city hall and bid to take over LAUSD schools, for most voters John Chiang is more like John Who?.
“Most Californians don’t know much about our constitutional officeholders. Newsom and Villaraigosa have both been mayors in very high-profile media markets, but being state controller and state treasurer doesn’t attract anywhere near the same type of public attention,” says state politics guru Dan Schnur, a USC political science professor who until recently ran the influential Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics.
“This isn’t his fault, but all the years John Chiang has spent in statewide office might as well have been in a witness protection program,” Schnur said.
On the Attack
Chiang hasn’t helped his case during the gubernatorial debates, failing to stand out enough for the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which criticized Chiang as “surprisingly unwilling to take strong stances or unpopular positions” in its endorsement of Villaraigosa. (The Argonaut has endorsed Chiang; the Sacramento Bee endorsed both Newsom and Chiang; the San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Newsom.)
“There was an era in which California tended to elect fairly low-key and measured personalities to the governor’s office — George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis. That era seems to have passed,” contemplates Schnur. “Chiang is much more reserved in public, so he tended to get overlooked on the debate stage not due to the substance of what he said, but the manner in which he said it.”
The odd thing is that when Chiang finally did turn up the heat in the May 8 debate and his campaign began launching last-minute attack ads this month, supporters argued it wasn’t a good look for him and converts have been few and far between.
As of last week, a USC-LA Times poll had Chiang in fourth place (Newsom at 21%, Cox 11%, Villaraigosa 10%, Chiang 6%) and a Public Policy Institute of California poll had him in fifth (Newsom at 25%, Cox 19%, Villaraigosa 15%, Travis Allen 11% and Chiang 9%). The battle now is for a second-place finish to face Newsom in the November runoff.
The John Chiang of today sounds different than the John Chiang on Santa Monica Pier last August — he’s accused Newsom and Villaraigosa of criminalizing the homeless during their mayoral tenure, took a shot at Villaraigosa about a campaign donation from an attorney for Bill Cosby, and called Newsom a flip-flopper on universal health care.
Last week Chiang ran television ads knocking Villaraigosa for surviving on independent expenditures from charter school advocates and accusing Newsom of drumming up support for Cox (“a Republican endorsed by Trump”) to avoid facing a Democrat in November.
“The race for governor has turned into a scam,” he says.
In response, Newsom may have actually thrown his fellow Democrat a bone: an attack ad accusing Chiang of mismanaging money as state controller, which Chiang’s campaign is spinning as a “sign that Newsom sees Chiang’s growing momentum as a threat.”
When you’re polling at single digits, every little bit helps.