Capitol Journal

John Chiang is calm, cool and collected. So why's he 'leaning toward' running for governor?

State Treasurer John Chiang is soft-spoken, reflective, substantive and a numbers geek. So why in this political era of shouting and showboating is he even thinking about running for California governor?

He doesn’t pander, preen or pounce.

Well, once he did pounce on the Legislature by trying to cut off lawmakers’ paychecks after they passed a sham state budget. That move didn’t win him friends among fellow Capitol Democrats.

Since last summer, Chiang, 53, has been talking about perhaps running for governor in 2018 when Gov. Jerry Brown is termed-out. He has been inching closer and now is “almost there,” he told me.

Truthfully, it looks like he is there. He just isn’t publicly saying so.

“I’m heavily leaning toward running,” he said. What are the odds? “Over 90%.”

He’ll make it official, he added, in the “next month or two.”

Why so early? The primary election is more than two years away. We’re in the thick of a presidential bloodbath.

Answer: A candidate who isn’t rich enough to finance his own campaign needs a long time to raise the money — tens of millions — to compete in a top-of-the-ticket California primary. That’s particularly true of a relative unknown like Chiang.

He has $3.3 million socked away from his easy 2014 jog for treasurer.

He’ll face tough competition for governor.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former San Francisco mayor who captured national attention by being ahead of the curve on same-sex marriage — ordering city officials to issue licenses to gay couples in 2004 — announced his gubernatorial candidacy more than a year ago.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is considered likely to run.

Environmental activist Tom Steyer, a Bay Area billionaire and former hedge fund manager, has been mulling a gubernatorial bid.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti would be a logical candidate except for the timing: He’ll be up for reelection in 2017.

Former state controller and EBay exec Steve Westly spent $35 million of his own money running for governor in 2006 and failed. He’d like to try again.

In this deep-blue state, unfortunately, Republicans need not apply.

But you also have to wonder about Chiang’s prospects.

This is a political era when ranters triumph over the rational, when extremism is favored over pragmatism.

Moreover, Californians like to elect celebrities. If not, at least attorneys general.

But, yes, a treasurer did once get elected California governor. It was nearly a century ago: Republican Friend Richardson in 1922.

The winning scenario for Chiang is that he’ll appeal to moderates — Republicans as well as Democrats, and nonpartisans. That’s now possible in California’s new open primary system. The top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

Chiang also can expect strong support from voters of Asian ancestry. He’d be the first to be elected California governor. Their numbers are increasing, and they currently account for roughly 10% of the electorate.

Chiang is the son of Taiwanese immigrants and grew up in Chicago. 

The family suffered tragedy in 1999 when Chiang’s 28-year-old sister Joyce, a government immigration attorney, was kidnapped, robbed and murdered in Washington, D.C., by drug addicts. Her body was found three months later in the Potomac River.

“It makes you understand how precious life is,” he said.

Chiang majored in finance, moved to Los Angeles and worked for several elected officials. He was chief deputy to state Board of Equalization member Brad Sherman when Sherman was elected to Congress. That automatically elevated Chiang to the board. He later ran for and won two terms.

Then he was elected twice as state controller. He held that job in 2011 when the Legislature passed a gimmicky budget just before its deadline. Brown declared the plan unbalanced and vetoed it. Acting under a new law, Chiang docked the lawmakers’ pay. But a judge overruled him.

“We made a point,” Chiang told me. He wanted the lawmakers “to understand that enough is enough. They have to get the budget correct.”

Chiang will talk nonstop about fiscal efficiencies and smart bond financing, about paying as you go rather than borrowing.

But he’s also a liberal on some things. He favors extending Brown’s soak-the-rich income tax rates, supports the recently signed $15-per-hour minimum wage and wants to spend more on education and affordable housing.

He’s not a fan of Brown’s $64-billion bullet train project, however.

“In concept, I support it,” he said. “But we need to get private funding. You can’t have a project that can’t sustain itself.”

There’s no private financing in sight.

Chiang is also skeptical about the governor’s $15.5-billion proposal to dig two 35-mile, 40-foot-wide water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“You can’t start building tunnels and further devastate the ecosystem of the delta,” he said. “My first priority is to preserve the delta.”

But he advocates more water storage — both above and below ground, preferably the latter.

Chiang hasn’t read the marijuana legalization initiative being promoted by Newsom, but he’s leery.

“I’m more of a decriminalization [guy] than legalization,” he said. “If adults want to use it, they can use it. But I don’t want to encourage it. … I want to make sure it’s heavily regulated.”

Chiang may be a nerd. But he’s knowledgeable, thoughtful and seems ethically clean.

Who knows? After this year, we may demand earmuffs and by 2018 want to listen to someone calm like Chiang.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter 

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