A vast, mostly untapped donor base could propel John Chiang to become California’s first Asian American governor

Former Monterey Park politician Lily Lee Chen, who in the 1980s became the first Chinese American woman in history to be elected mayor of a U.S. city, says she has plunked down $1,000 in the hopes that Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang will be California’s next governor.

Chen’s donation to Chiang’s 2018 campaign may be relatively modest by today’s standards, but she’s confident that Asian Americans throughout California will start to crack open their wallets. And they have, many excited by the prospect of Chiang becoming the state’s first Asian American governor.

“It would be my dream,” said Chen, who is now 80 and lives in Glendale. “He would serve as a model for all the Chinese American young people who have political aspirations and want to be good public servants.’’

In just the first month and a half of his gubernatorial campaign, which he launched in May, Chiang raised close to $2.2 million. The overwhelming majority of his biggest donors, those who cut checks of $10,000 or more, were Asian American business leaders and entrepreneurs. It’s a list that includes DemocratsRepublicans, venture capitalists, former utility chief executives and people contributing to a state campaign for the first time as well as longtime benefactors of Asian American candidates in California.

The quick influx of cash will be essential in a gubernatorial campaign where Chiang will face off against two heavyweight Democrats, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom joined the race in early 2015 and has a sizable money advantage over the field, and other big-name candidates may also jump into the race in the months ahead.

Chen has kept tabs on Chiang for decades as he rose toward the top of California’s political universe, starting when he was an aide to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, then as a member of the state Board of Equalization, then state controller and now treasurer. She knows that he’ll need all the help he can get to take on Newsom and Villaraigosa.

UC Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan said Chiang’s fundraising success shows the vast, mostly untapped potential of California’s Asian American donor base — mostly college-educated, high-net-worth voters.

“The parties still do a pretty bad job, and this includes Democrats, reaching out to Asian American voters and Asian American donors,” he said.

He said the muted participation by Asian American donors may be tied, at least in part, to the 1990s scandal surrounding John Huang of Glendale, whose fundraising efforts for the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign triggered congressional and Justice Department investigations.

“They ended up returning a lot of contributions from Asian American donors … and later candidates put them under more scrutiny,” Ramakrishnan said. “That left a bad taste for many donors.”

Ramakrishnan said he believes many donors new to the political process tend to give more to politicians from their own ethnic group, even those from a different political party. But as donors become more seasoned, their spending tends to shift more toward their political ideology, he said.

Updates from Sacramento »

Democratic political consultant Bill Wong said that for many, those ethnic bonds remain stronger than partisan allegiance and that, in part, has helped fuel the political ascension of Asian American politicians in the state. Wong remembers when, in the 1980s, there wasn’t a single Asian American state lawmaker. In the California Legislature, there are now 15 lawmakers in the Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus. Two of California’s eight statewide officeholders are Asian American: Chiang and Controller Betty Yee.

The governor’s office has remained an elusive prize. That should help Chiang attract widespread support from a wide spectrum of Asian American voters, Wong said.

“John Chiang’s campaign is kind of a watershed moment,” he said.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, according to the last U.S. census in 2010, and currently account for an estimated 14% of California’s population.

The eldest son of Taiwanese immigrants, Chiang grew up in Chicago and New York and moved west after earning his law degree. He worked for then-Controller Gray Davis and Boxer. In 1998, he won his first contest for elected office: a seat on the Board of Equalization, which oversees the collection of tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. Chiang went on to serve two terms as state controller and in 2014 was elected state treasurer.

C.C. Yin of Vacaville, who owns a string of Northern California McDonald’s restaurants, contributed $56,400 to Chiang’s campaign in June and his wife, Regina Yin, kicked in an additional $28,200.

Yin describes himself as a “big time Republican” and has backed Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield and former GOP state Sen. Bob Huff’s unsuccessful campaign for Los Angeles County supervisor. But he’s been a generous supporter of Asian American candidates regardless of party.

“We’re Americans. We’re all different. Different is good. But we all have common ground, too,” Yin said.

Joseph Ko of Laguna Niguel, president of Techko Robot Inc., praised Chiang for his political integrity and years of experience including, when he was controller, refusing an order by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 to furlough state workers three days a month amid the state budget crisis. The courts ultimately overruled Chiang.

“He has guts. He took on the big guys,” said Ko, who donated $28,200 to Chiang’s campaign.

Chiang’s other major Asian American donors include Alice Wang of Buena Park, president of GST Inc.; Michael Chang, president of FCP Brands Inc. in Vernon; venture capitalist Wai-Yan Sandy Chau of Los Altos Hills; and Anne Shen Smith, former chairwoman and CEO of Southern California Gas Co.

Chiang’s political consultant, Parke Skelton, said all candidates are relying on their strongest bases of support to raise money at this early stage in the campaign. For Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, that means the Bay Area. For Villaraigosa, Los Angeles.

“John has been a prominent leader [in the Asian American community] naturally for some time now. So it’s only natural that he would have a fundraising base there,” Skelton said. “His campaign is an historic one in that community.”

Chiang also received strong support from organized labor in his previous campaigns for treasurer and controller but, Skelton said, unions and other major donors to Democratic candidates will probably stay on the sidelines until the governor’s race begins in earnest. And competition for those dollars will be fierce. Skelton predicts candidates will need to raise at least $20 million just to get an “entry ticket.”

Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign had raised $6.4 million as of June 30, and he has $2.2 million in his lieutenant governor campaign account, which he can tap into, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Thus far, Newsom has been the darling of the Bay Area’s well-heeled tech industry, with a list of donors that includes Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. 

Chiang also is sitting on a pot of money. Along with the $2.2 million raised in his bid for governor, he has $3.2 million socked away in his treasurer campaign account.

Villaraigosa is playing catch-up since he didn’t jump into the race until early November. Still, he raised more than $627,000 since then in contributions of $5,000 or more, according to state election records. His big donors include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad and billionaire Stewart Resnick, who built a nut empire in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Chen, the former mayor of Monterey Park, likes Villaraigosa and even contributed to his 2005 mayoral campaign. But he’s out of luck this time, she said. Still, she thinks Chiang can learn a thing or two from Villaraigosa and Newsom. Like many politicians, neither are shy about touting their accomplishments, she said.

“John is too humble,” she said. “I’m trying to get my political friends to do something about that.”

phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon 

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