Controller's unlikely turn in spotlight

As a high school kid in Illinois, John Chiang ran for student council on a populist platform: ridding the lunchroom jukebox of disco music.

"That was the major wedge issue," recalled a friend who was his campaign partner. Disco was fading. Punk and new wave were coming in. They won.

Chiang, now the Golden State's controller, became vice president of the student body -- a notable achievement for one of the school's few Asian kids and the target of name-calling and racial slurs. The friend was Dave Jones, who today is California's insurance commissioner.

This week, the boyish-looking, mild-mannered Chiang took another bold stand: In his capacity as the state's cashier, he made headlines by deciding to dock state lawmakers' pay. Their budget math "simply did not add up," he said, and he hit them with voter-approved sanctions for late spending plans.

However much it angered legislators, the move delighted the public. Chiang's Facebook page was flooded with attaboys. Clearly, said Capitol observers, his unofficial campaign for governor had begun, three years before the office will even be open.

Chiang, a 48-year-old Democrat, has been in politics for more than two decades, but there is still a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" quality about him. He stumbles over a sound bite, and his role is decidedly unsexy: processing payments and monitoring government cash flow.

Clearly more comfortable diving into the tax code than glad-handing voters and political donors, "he describes himself as a tax lawyer, an accountant and a numbers guy," said Barbara O'Connor, a public affairs strategist in Sacramento.

He is also the eldest child of Taiwanese immigrants. His parents came to the U.S. with little in the 1950s.

"As my mom oftentimes pointed out when the kids started to complain about things in our household, my dad came to this country with three shirts, two pairs of pants and less than $100 in his pocket, trying to learn his fifth language to write his dissertation in chemical engineering," Chiang said in a 2008 speech at UC Berkeley.

He was born in New York, and several years later, the family moved to the South Side of Chicago -- among the first Asian American families in the neighborhood, Chiang said. Rocks occasionally burst through their windows.

"I remember the ugly racial epithets spray-painted on our garage: 'Go home, gook. Go home, Jap. Go home, chink,' " he said in the speech.

"Of all the things that took place during that time, the most powerful notion for me was the feeling of isolation and exclusion."

School was also a challenge. Chiang was "subject to quite a bit of hostility and prejudice," Jones recalled in an interview last year. "Here's a kid who's thrown into a large public high school where, besides his brother, he's basically the only Chinese American kid."

Chiang went to law school at Georgetown and then landed a job as a tax specialist. But the work was unsatisfying. "Life's path was askew," he said in the speech. "My soul and spirit were uncomfortable."

He soon began volunteering his tax expertise in the community and plunged into Democratic activism. Later, he worked on the staffs of former Gov. Gray Davis, when Davis held the job Chiang now has, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. In 1998, he won a seat on the Board of Equalization, an obscure but powerful state body that oversees the collection of tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. It was his first elected office.

Six days after Chiang was sworn in, tragedy struck. His younger sister Joyce vanished in Washington, D.C., where she worked. Her body was found months later on the shore of the Potomac, identifiable only through DNA testing. Like her brother, Joyce Chiang had been politically engaged, as college student body president and later as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Howard Berman.

Many political oddsmakers assumed Chiang's ascent in public office would begin and end at the tax board. But in 2006, he ran for controller. He was widely viewed as the dark-horse candidate in a Democratic primary against former state Sen. Joe Dunn, a charismatic trial lawyer who had led the Legislature's investigation of Enron's role in the state energy crisis.

But Chiang, the wonky accountant nobody knew, mobilized a formidable network of local unions, community groups and immigrant organizations that propelled him to victory. He jokes that his mother, who had always wanted him to be a doctor, was not impressed.

"Why don't you run for an office that people know?" she told him when he ran for state controller. In an auditorium full of Berkeley students who were asked if they knew what he did, only five raised their hands. "I want to thank you all for verifying I still haven't reached my mom's goal," he joked.

Chiang may finally be positioned to run for an office that pleases his mother.

In the wake of the financial scandal in Bell last year, he burnished his public image by deploying an army of auditors who uncovered illegal taxes and fees imposed on residents. He is now working with lawmakers to expand his authority to allow for more such probes. He has put the pay and other compensation received by public employees online -- again to the public's plaudits.

In the last years of the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chiang made news by refusing the governor's order that state workers be furloughed three days a month amid the state budget crisis. The courts ultimately overruled Chiang, but his action made him a hero to organized labor.

Chiang also rejected Schwarzenegger's attempts to lower the pay of some 200,000 state workers to minimum wage when the state was without a budget. The courts again said Chiang had to comply -- after reprogramming the state's clunky computers. Chiang declared that task impossible, and the pay was never cut.

Adjusting the computers now to subtract legislators' pay does not appear to be a problem, though the move is potentially perilous. It has irritated much of the Democratic establishment, including labor unions and grassroots organizations that have bolstered Chiang's career. The groups supported the budget that Democratic lawmakers passed last week. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it.

Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) said Chiang may have undermined any gubernatorial ambitions he has by putting himself at odds with some of the state's biggest powerbrokers.

"What we need from him is ... courage" -- not grandstanding in an already tense Capitol, he said. "What we don't need is the freak show he has now facilitated."

Times staff writers Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento and Sam Allen in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction John Chiang: In some copies of the June 23 Section A, an article about John Chiang, California's controller, gave his age as 49. Chiang is 48.
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