Most Californians recognize the name John Chiang only from having seen it appear printed on state employees’ pay stubs. But it may, pretty soon, become a lot more familiar to them. Jerry Brown is term-limited from running for another term as Governor of California. Now at the age of 79, this blustery firebrand who is not-so-affectionately known as “Moonbeam” will see his four-decade political career wind down. And, for the past two years, the race to succeed him has been on.
Being a supermajority Democratic state, California’s underfunded Republican gubernatorial hopefuls are unlikely to even make a dent in this race. Furthermore, unlike most other states, California has a “jungle primary” system – where every single candidate running for a seat appears on the exact same ballot during the primary. Then, the top two vote-getters advance to the General Election for a two-person showdown. This is why Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, both Democrats, ended up going head-to-head against one another in last November’s General Election to fill the open seat created by the retirement of four-term incumbent Barbara Boxer.
So let’s turn our attention to the prominent Democrats in the race. They are the ones who will be duking it out over the next seven months in order to place in one of the two highest spots during the June 2018 “jungle primary.” Those top two placers will then face off in the General Election on November 6, 2018.
My contention is that, out of the declared candidates, John Chiang is the best choice to be placed in charge of the world’s sixth-largest economy. Combined with his fiscal discipline and thoughtful demeanor, Chiang would be in the most effective position to forge working relationships with other state governors and California’s state legislature. His poise – not to mention his general aversion to showboating – will make him a polar opposite of Donald Trump.
First, a quick biography. Chiang (whose surname is pronounced “Chung”) is the son of Taiwanese immigrants; he grew up in suburban Chicago as an honors student who went on to study finance and law. His first political campaign resulted in two terms as our State Controller from 2006 to 2014; this position required him to essentially act as the state’s chief accountant and bookkeeper. Fittingly, he was elected as State Treasurer in 2014.
Prior to his career in elected office, Chiang made good use of his finance degree to navigate through Democratic Party politics as a congressional intern for multiple candidates. He worked on the unsuccessful campaign to pass Proposition 100, which would have rewarded good drivers by lowering insurance rates for those with responsible driving records; although voters rejected this referendum back in 1988, it illustrated the value that Chiang places on personal responsibility and cost-controls.
John Chiang’s perseverance shows a willingness to bridge the gap between establishment Democrats and progressive activists, as his low-key affability endeared him to his party’s bigwigs whereupon he had to network with them, out of necessity, at fundraising events. He also juggled personal travails amid committing himself to public service: the 1999 homicide of his sister, and his brother’s 2005 embezzlement conviction. Ultimately, Chiang quit a soul-sucking desk job as a tax lawyer for the IRS to immerse himself in the bloody, dirty trenches of electoral warfare with a remarkable aura of grace and modesty.
When former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to slash the salaries of 200,000 state employees (down to the then-$7.25 federal minimum wage) in 2009, Chiang refused to cooperate out of principle. Schwarzenegger’s intent was to force the State Assembly and State Senate to overcome partisan gridlock to pass a balanced budget. Chiang, in his capacity as State Controller, believed it was wrong for Schwarzenegger to hold tens of thousands of working people hostage as chess pieces; he also pointed out how it would cost more money and create more bureaucracy to implement those temporary pay reductions. Governor Schwarzenegger sued Chiang, who, in turn, proceeded to stall as a way of preventing those salary cuts from taking effect.
Schwarzenegger’s additional layoffs and hiring freeze only added to Chiang’s tug-of-war with The Governator. In light of California’s 2009 budget crisis coming at the height of the Great Recession, John Chiang made the tough decision to delay state tax refunds with IOUs. While this was at odds with Schwarzenegger’s desire to provide tax relief, Chiang evaluated the reality that the state’s treasury simply didn’t have the money to go further into debt in the name of dispersing refunds. His refusal to engage in creative “book-cooking” very likely paved the way for California’s economic turnaround that came to pass in the following decade.
Once Brown took over for Schwarzenegger in 2011, Chiang didn’t stop there. Reelected to a second term as State Controller (despite Californians’ disappointment about not receiving 2009 state tax refunds), Chiang docked the collective pay of state lawmakers when they once again failed to balance the budget. While the courts ultimately overruled this action from Chiang, his principles and heart were clearly in the right place.
Next, let’s take a look at the past three governors who have steered the heavy ship that is The Golden State’s budget.
Gray Davis, first elected in 1998, sat on his hands during the 2000-01 electricity crisis while California was plagued by rolling blackouts resulting from an electricity shortage. He had signed off on overpriced energy contracts with Enron while taking a largely noninterventionist approach that enabled price-gouging to metastasize. After Davis was infamously recalled by voters in 2003, his replacement – Schwarzenegger – waltzed into the Governor’s Mansion and almost immediately proceeded to alienate leaders from both major parties whom he needed as allies. His unpopular combination of spending cuts and tax increases didn’t prevent the state’s debt from ballooning throughout his seven years in Sacramento.
Once Schwarzenegger was term-limited out of office, Governor Brown managed to reverse a lot of The Governator’s fiscal recklessness…however, Brown has also wasted significant time grandstanding on counterproductive legislative measures: the notorious “bullet train to nowhere” and the dubious “water tunnels” that arguably wouldn’t even scratch the surface of alleviating California’s drought. Rather than focusing on revitalizing agricultural infrastructure throughout the state or finding new solutions for water sustainability, Brown squandered precious headline-grabbing opportunities by word-policing health care workers and enabling the spread of HIV.
John Chiang’s own record, by contrast, has been centered around smart and proactive behavior. Halfway into his current term as State Treasurer, he was among the first to call for Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf’s resignation following the September 2016 scandal where the bank was caught opening nearly 3.5 million unauthorized accounts in the state. Then, Chiang suspended Wells Fargo for one year from doing negotiated sales in securities-based investment work (this didn’t, for obvious reasons, shut down the regular Wells Fargo consumer bank branches that its customers still rely on) within California’s borders.
The “tough love” Chiang exerted over Wells Fargo prompted the bank to put forth the lowest competitive bid of bond sales in California, which, among other things, gave us the capital to get to work repairing the Oroville Dam flooding from February 2017. These funds should compensate for whatever amount FEMA ultimately falls short in terms of its natural disaster reimbursements. Such practical thinking also will benefit Californians when dealing with future natural disasters: earthquake damage, wildfires, or other unforeseen threats to public health (such as the 2015-16 Alison Canyon gas leak, which went largely ignored by the mainstream media).
He, along with state senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (a fellow Democrat who recently announced he’ll be running against Diane Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat next year), has been instrumental in overseeing the state’s first pension plan specifically designed to protect private sector workers. Known as Secure Choice, it automatically enrolls workers who don’t already have 401(k)s into personal savings accounts through withholdings. Although this plan has overwhelming bipartisan support across most demographics, it’s opposed by many banks and 401(k) administrators for much the same reason why private health insurance companies oppose a public option for health care…it would force plans to be more competitive and cost-effective.
Opponents of the Secure Choice plan will try to claim that coercion is involved; however, it’s incumbent upon employers to make it clear that the plan is an option (with an opt-out clause) mandated by state law, and no repercussions can be directed against an employee who does choose to opt out. Now, President Trump’s signature on federal legislation overturning ERISA regulations threatens to jeopardize this option for 7 million workers in California’s private sector. It’s an ironic turn of events where Trump and House Republicans appear poised to violate states’ rights – in direct violation of Republican principles.
Since taking office as Treasurer, Chiang has paved the way for greater government accountability and transparency by enabling taxpayers to access data related to salaries, expenditures, benefits, and borrowing costs at the state and local levels. The website, known as “DebtWatch,” contains records that span back for three decades. In order to keep the CalSTRS and CalPERS retirement programs stable, Chiang has cracked down on “pension spiking” – he supports using some of the revenue from the Surplus Money Investment Fund to keep these pensions solvent well into the future.
As Governor of California, a major component of John Chiang’s platform would be his plan to reinvest in public education while giving local teachers more decision-making power in operational decisions unique to their schools. Sure, I would love to see him be more vocal and specific on agricultural investments and water sustainability. But take a look at his present-day competition for the Governor’s Mansion…
Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsome tends to lead most polls due to name recognition and his status as Jerry Brown’s second-in-command for the past eight years. Although Newsome was heralded for his embrace of LGBT marriage equality while Mayor of San Francisco from 2003 to 2011, his recent coziness with land developers and oil companies in Northern California has been criticized. On the plus side, he cautiously supports the legalization of marijuana, and has the potential to become a fine governor (even though Chiang lacks Newsome’s magnitude of opportunism).
Our “beloved” former Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, is another story. He spent most of his first term mugging for the camera and wasting time rather than achieving any tangible results. When he ran for reelection in 2009, Villaraigosa arrogantly refused to participate in televised debates with any of his underfunded mayoral opponents. During his second mayoral term, he not-so-shrewdly got caught accepting thousands of dollars in unreported free gifts (from his first term) in the form of free tickets to a variety of sports, award show, and entertainment-themed events. Villaraigosa also deceived Los Angelenos into supporting a telecommunications tax extension by threatening to slash city services…even though he had negotiated pay hikes for veteran city employees, just months earlier. One of his few major accomplishments – revitalizing L.A.’s mass transit system – has been overshadowed by the city’s lack of overall improvement during Villaraigosa’s tenure.
Predictably, Newsome and Villaraigosa are already showing early signs of gunning for each other. Villaraigosa has accused Newsome of flip-flopping on the high-speed rail project, whereas Newsome has pointed to Villaraigosa’s attempts to wrest local control away from schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
John Chiang will face criticisms of his own. PolitiFact has found him to have embellished the $5 billion amount that Chiang boasts he’s saved California taxpayers – stipulating how this figure is only accurate if one takes into account projections of likely future savings. And while Chiang has made significant headway in deregulating California housing to make it more affordable, his claims of an 80% increase also include successful rehabilitation of existing housing units. Certainly, opponents will try to lambaste Chiang for the campaign contributions he has received from housing developers. But as Loyola law professor Jessica Levinson puts it: “The question becomes, was the donation given for a vote, or to say ‘thank you’ for a vote?”
If Antonio Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsome get carried away with garish squabbling and personal attacks as they square off to prove who can be the most telegenic, John Chiang stands a good chance of sliding into one of the top two spots in the “jungle primary” for being – as UC-Riverside associate dean Karthick Ramakrishnan phrases it – “the adult in the room.” Then he would go head-to-head against the other placer in the top two (most likely, Newsome) for the November 2018 General Election.
Progressive voters should give Chiang a fair hearing. Yes, to the chagrin of many, he supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 – but so did both Villaraigosa and Newsome. Chiang’s endorsement from rising Democratic star Ted Lieu – an unapologetically vocal Trump critic – when coupled with Chiang’s own steadfast, clear-headed restraint is something to be considered. As much as I want us, the American public, to force both Republicans and Democrats to transcend their gratuitous bickering, we need to get past who endorsed Hillary or who endorsed Bernie or who has decided to #DemExit or #DemEnter.
Speaking in automobile terms: Newsome and Villaraigosa are the ornate race car and the noisy motorcycle of California’s 2018 gubernatorial race. John Chiang, by contrast, is the reliable station wagon that would prevent Californians as a whole from careening off of yet another cliff.