John Chiang was the best candidate for state treasurer in the June primary, and he's the best candidate now. A lawyer and a Democrat who is termed out of his job as state controller after eight years, Chiang has the experience and the political and financial know-how to succeed Bill Lockyer as a tough-minded state treasurer.
While the controller functions as a kind of chief accountant and paymaster for the state — managing cash flow and paying bills — the treasurer is more of a financial counselor for California and promoter of the state's fiscal health to Wall Street. The treasurer also issues wonky but important pronouncements on the state's debt load and exhorts the Legislature to spend less.
Chiang's opponent, Greg Conlon, is a Republican businessman and certified public accountant, a former president of the California Public Utilities Commission and current chairman of the Finance Committee in Atherton, Calif. He brings a respectable resume to the table but doesn't have nearly the relevant experience Chiang has. Chiang served as controller through the Great Recession, through a spate of city financial scandals and through a period of growing alarm over the unfunded liabilities of the nation's two largest public pension funds, the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS).
Chiang already sits on the boards of those two pension funds and would continue to do so as treasurer. He already knows the Wall Street players and credit rating agencies, which should serve him well as he defends the state's creditworthiness.
Chiang's office has ferreted out pension “spiking” at CalSTRS — sudden and suspect boosts in employees' salaries designed to increase their pension benefits. In the wake of the scandal in the city of Bell, he launched a sweeping audit of the struggling city of Montebello nearby, and found some relatively serious problems there as well. He created an accessible online database of the salaries and benefits of public employees. He fixed problems with the state's dysfunctional unclaimed property fund program.
Chiang has taken some knocks. He withheld legislators' pay in June 2011 on the grounds that they hadn't passed a balanced budget on time. Nice try at politician-shaming, but the courts ruled that he overstepped. He took flak for voting along with most of the CalPERS board members to approve 99 new categories of extra pay that can count toward pensions under Gov. Jerry Brown's pension reform plan.
In the end, we expect the state treasurer to focus on what is fair and fiscally prudent. Chiang can do that.