John Chiang hits the road to raise his profile in California governor's race

As California treasurer, John Chiang is most comfortable immersed in the state’s finances and rattling off numbers that would sail over average voters’ heads.

But as he embarks on a yearlong tour of the state for his gubernatorial bid, Chiang is trying to show off another side: He’s taking jabs at his rivals, meeting with voters in neighborhood stores and taquerias and doing anything he can to raise his name recognition in the state he hopes to lead, but where few voters know who he is. On Friday, he sets off on the next leg of his trip with a pest-control conference in Anaheim and a summer solstice festival in Santa Barbara among the stops.

Chiang kicked off his tour this month at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, and as he put his retail politics skills to the test, his cerebral nature still showed through.

He visited a lending library, where he marveled over a large map and the shopkeeper’s blue-and-brown-framed eyeglasses, musing that they reminded him of the Earth.

At Al & Bea’s Mexican Food, the founder’s grandson told Chiang that the stand’s signature burrito cost 18 cents when the eatery opened in 1966. Chiang pondered whether the current price, $5.65, had outpaced inflation. His staff didn’t entertain his question.

“They wouldn't check for me — ‘That’s too John,’ ” he said, laughing. “I like a sense of proportion.”

Chiang has also shown he can throw some punches. At the kickoff event in Boyle Heights, he announced an endorsement from a longtime ally of gubernatorial rival Antonio Villaraigosa in the former Los Angeles mayor’s birthplace. The next day, he headed to San Francisco, the hometown of another candidate in the race, Gavin Newsom. Chiang took a thinly veiled shot at Newsom, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that he “wasn’t born into a family with wealth or big connections.”

Chiang’s greatest hurdle is lack of name recognition. Three out of 4 California voters had no opinion of him in a Berkeley IGS Poll released this month. When voters were asked if they planned to support him in next year’s gubernatorial race, he polled in the single digits.

So Chiang will talk to anyone who will listen. On Friday, after the pest-control conference, Chiang will zip around Orange County, holding a higher-education roundtable at Fullerton College, touring a local business and meeting with labor leaders and a local Democratic club. The following day, he’ll have breakfast with Democrats in Santa Barbara before attending the festival there.

With his understated style and lower-profile office, Chiang has not been as visible as Newsom and Villaraigosa — both former big-city mayors with national profiles — something he readily acknowledges on the stump.

“[I’m] the fiscally responsible progressive. It doesn’t capture everybody’s imagination at the outset,” he said at a recent Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum luncheon, when asked about how he would break through in the field. “But as people start thinking … we’re getting huge responses.”

Some political strategists say there is a path for Chiang — who has raised more than $5 million for his campaign to be California’s first Asian American governor — if a number of factors break his way.

Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State, said Chiang’s résumé – a decade on the state Board of Equalization, eight years as state controller and state treasurer since 2015 — could prove compelling if the economy dips.

“We know a recession hits California harder than the nation as a whole. Chiang, I think, can lay out the credential that, ‘I’m the one that can best manage this,’ ” Gerston said.

Such an argument could also appeal to moderate Republican voters if no GOP candidate advances to the general election.

“The big challenge is to make it to the top two,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate dean at the UC Riverside School of Public Policy, adding that he thinks Chiang needs to start television advertising earlier than his Democratic rivals to raise his name identification, an expensive prospect. “The key question is how he spends his money between now and a year from now.”

Chiang has no plans to air TV ads soon. But as he campaigns across the state, he has a team of videographers documenting his every move on expensive high-definition cameras — footage for Web videos that could be used in television ads.

But his challenge is clear.

Shortly after Chiang met with community activists on the patio of Al & Bea’s Mexican Food, a car pulled up towing a new green-and-white camper for his statewide tour, bearing his name, picture and Web address.

“Is that guy running for governor?” a customer called out, receiving an affirmative answer.

Mark Rubalcaba, 45, paused from eating a burrito blanketed in red chile sauce to respond, “Never heard of the guy.”

seema.mehta@latimes.com

For the latest on California politics, follow @LATSeema on Twitter.

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