Chiang's tenure as California treasurer to end after one term
LOS ANGELES — California State Treasurer John Chiang gave up what was likely to have been an easy re-election bid to pursue the dream of becoming governor.
That dream didn’t come true; his candidacy didn’t survive the June primary.
So after 20 years in state elected office, Chiang is exploring other options at the age of 56.
His elected career — with the state Board of Equalization and the State Controller’s Office before his single term as treasurer — left him with a reputation as a fiscal policy expert.
He can explain with great specificity why green bonds are the best way to promote climate change. And how the multiple housing bond measures approved in the state’s major cities are a good start to solve the state’s housing crisis.
Some say Chiang's fiscal policies resemble Gov. Jerry Brown's, but Tim Newton, a communications studies and public policy professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, said Chiang "never had the stature or presence to let people get to that," in contrast to Brown, who had a long-established public persona starting with his first stint as governor in the 1970s, to presidential campaigns, and being mayor of Oakland and state attorney general.
“The death knell on his campaign was that he was running against two more well-known and charismatic opponents," Newton said of Chiang, who gave a vague response in a recent interview to what his future plans are, so as not to tip his hat.
Chiang came in third among the Democrats in June’s primary, behind Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who went on to the November race, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor.
“I think Chiang needs to be able to have more things to talk about in terms of his accomplishments and his ideas, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him," Newton said.
“There may be a better election in his future,” Newton said. “He’s young.”
Chiang's political ascent began when he was appointed in 1997 to the State Board of Equalization representing the Los Angeles region. He was elected to the post in his own right a year later.
Chiang rose to chair of the Board of Equalization, before running successfully for the state controller’s office. After eight years in that position, he successfully ran for treasurer. His run for governor was the first stumble of his career.
The results were not an embarrassment, showing Chiang to be a credible candidate, said Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“He got outspent by the two more well-known candidates and he knew it was an uphill battle when he got into this race,” Yaroslavsky said.
Yaroslavsky, a long-time Los Angeles County supervisor, and the youngest person to win a Los Angeles City Council election at the age of 26, said that Chiang definitely has a future as an elected, if he wants it.
He also thinks that should Newsom win the governor’s election, he should consider Chiang for a cabinet position.
“I don’t know whether he wants that, but I think he would be a great asset to the State of California,” Yaroslavsky said.
“I think he has incredible talent and intelligence,” Yaroslavsky said. “The new governor would be well advised to consider him for some position, whether it be cabinet level or in the Office of Management and Budget. He has a keen understanding of finance.”
Yaroslavsky said he thinks Newsom will be the state’s next governor. His opponent in November is Republican John Cox.
The campaign also did not damage Chiang in any way, Yaroslavsky said.
“I think his electable future is intact,” Yaroslavsky said. “Where he would run, I don’t know. I don’t know exactly where he lives and what his interest could be. If he wants an elected future, I think he could have one.”
Chiang was never known for a charismatic presence, but demonstrated solid sense of how to make a political point when events presented him with such an opportunity.
As controller in 2008, he defied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to slash the pay of more than 200,000 state workers to the federal minimum of $6.55 per hour due the lack of an approved state budget.
Chiang bucked the governor's order and devised a strategy to put pressure on the Legislature to enact a budget by threatening to withhold lawmakers’ pay if they didn't pass a budget.
More recently as treasurer, Chiang used the fake-accounts scandal at Wells Fargo to take public stands against the unpopular bank, including banning the firm from doing negotiated bond underwriting for the state.
Chiang graduated with a degree in finance from the University of South Florida and has a law degree from Georgetown University.
He began his career as a tax law specialist for the IRS. He worked as an attorney for then-California State Controller Gray Davis, and also worked on the staff of California Senator Barbara Boxer.
In 1997, Chiang was appointed to the California Board of Equalization after incumbent Brad Sherman resigned, having been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chiang listed U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, former Congressman Mel Levine, and Davis, who went on to the governor’s office, as people he looks up to.
"I’ve worked for Sherman, Levine, and Davis, and they’ve all been incredibly supportive throughout my career," Chiang said.
Chiang said he also tries to encourage younger and less-experienced people.
"I also want to ensure the next generation of leaders have the support and encouragement they need, which is why I have participated in a number of mentorship programs and have had more than a dozen mentees throughout my career," Chiang said. "Some of my closest mentees include Arnold Lee, Julie Tran, and Tommy Tseng."
Chiang’s Taiwanese parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1950, so his father could pursue graduate studies at Cleveland State University. Chiang was born in New York City and grew up in Chicago.
Chiang moved to Los Angeles in 1987 where he got involved in local Democratic Party politics.
As treasurer, Chiang made housing a signature issue, using the office to advocate and administer housing bond issues.
He also worked to create CalSavers, a voluntary low-cost, portable retirement savings vehicle designed to be offered to workers whose employers don’t offer a 401(k) or other retirement program.