In the Trump era, a can­di­date with no drama

John Chi­ang hopes Cal­i­for­ni­ans will like his more low-key style of lead­er­ship.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Fin­negan

It took decades for John Chi­ang to hus­tle into the top ranks of Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­tics, and he rel­ished all the schmooz­ing along the way.

On Lu­nar New Year, Chi­ang turned up at a fire­cracker party in West­min­ster. Weeks later, he woke early for a cat­tle­men’s break­fast in Sacra­mento. When the Fresno Ro­tary Club sought a lun­cheon speaker, Chi­ang made time.

His non­stop net­work­ing has paid div­i­dends. He won five elec­tions in a rout, most re­cently in 2014 for state trea­surer.

Yet to many Cal­i­for­ni­ans, Chi­ang is just a vaguely fa­mil­iar name, of­ten mis­pro­nounced. (It’s Chung, not Chang.) It shows up on bal­lots, some­where near the mid­dle.

But now that he’s run­ning for gov­er­nor, Chi­ang is com­pet­ing on a much big­ger stage. Vot­ers pay close at­ten­tion to the top of the ticket, ap­prais­ing char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity.

For the first time in his ca­reer, the way that Chi­ang’s re­served, low-key de­meanor comes off on tele­vi­sion will mat­ter — all the more so in a race against fel­low Democrats An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa and Gavin New­som, two of the state’s most charis­matic politi­cians.

A strait-laced fi­nance man, Chi­ang, 55, dis­missed

the for­mer may­ors of Los An­ge­les and San Fran­cisco as “stylish” — more show horse than work­horse.

Chi­ang, who lives in a condo around the cor­ner from a South Bay mall, wears baggy suits from Nord­strom Rack. He called him­self “Tor­rance stylish,” then burst out laugh­ing.

“I’m quite OK with be­ing a sea­son be­hind,” he said.

At a time of con­stant drama in the Trump White House, Chi­ang hopes that Cal­i­for­ni­ans will turn to a more or­di­nary style of lead­er­ship, as they did when they elected Gray Davis gov­er­nor a gen­er­a­tion ago.

His man­ner can come off as un­pol­ished. Chi­ang, un­like his nim­ble op­po­nents, can get mired in ex­plain­ing the likes of “sur­plus money in­vest­ment pools” — not sur­pris­ing for a one­time high school “math­lete” who ma­jored in fi­nance and won elec­tion to Cal­i­for­nia’s Board of Equal­iza­tion on his way up to state con­troller and trea­surer.

“He’s sort of an ac­ci­den­tal politi­cian,” said Michael Gen­est, who was state fi­nance di­rec­tor un­der Repub­li­can Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger.

Chi­ang has al­ready banked nearly $9 mil­lion for the gov­er­nor’s race, en­sur­ing he’ll have plenty to spend on ads be­fore the June 2018 pri­mary.

For now, he is play­ing up his de­fi­ant streak. In 2008, when he was con­troller, he re­fused to obey Sch­warzeneg­ger’s or­der to cut the pay of state work­ers to min­i­mum wage un­til law­mak­ers passed a bud­get.

“I was the last per­son stand­ing, and I said, ‘Gov. Sch­warzeneg­ger, you don’t do that to 200,000 good peo­ple,’ ” Chi­ang told union lead­ers at a la­bor gath­er­ing last month in Or­ange County.

In 2011, Chi­ang en­raged leg­is­la­tors by dock­ing their pay dur­ing an­other bud­get im­passe, say­ing they’d breached a law that pun­ishes them for late spend­ing plans. He boasts that friends in the Leg­is­la­ture stopped talk­ing to him.

“It made me the most un­pop­u­lar per­son in Sacra­mento,” Chi­ang told a crowd in Ana­heim.

Crit­ics see a pat­tern of crass op­por­tunism. “It’s all about what’s best for him­self and what will gen­er­ate head­lines — not what’s best for the state,” said Matt David, a Repub­li­can strate­gist who was deputy chief of staff to Sch­warzeneg­ger.

The son of im­mi­grants from Taiwan, Chi­ang grew up with three younger sib­lings in Pa­los Heights, Ill. His fa­ther was a plas­tics en­gi­neer, his mother a full-time par­ent.

They were the first Asian fam­ily to move into the mainly white up­scale Chicago sub­urb in the 1960s, when Chi­ang was just start­ing grade school. He re­calls rampant big­otry — taunts, fights, van­dal­ism and “ugly racial ep­i­thets.” It left him feel­ing iso­lated but taught him em­pa­thy.

“The hurt goes deep,” he said. “It makes me who I am.”

At home, Chi­ang’s par­ents spoke mostly English, but also Tai­wanese Hokkien, Man­darin and Ja­panese. Every few years, the fam­ily would visit rel­a­tives in Taiwan, which was un­der Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion when Chi­ang’s par­ents were chil­dren.

Chi­ang re­mem­bers his mother cook­ing de­li­cious Chi­nese food for his school lunches. But to fit in, he begged her to switch to Amer­i­can sand­wiches, prefer­ably on Won­der Bread.

“I was pet­ri­fied bring­ing lunch to school,” Chi­ang said. “Ev­ery­body had peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches.”

At 12 years old, he was cap­ti­vated by the Water­gate hear­ings. “All I knew is the pres­i­dent lied, and he had se­cret tapes, and it was like, ‘Oooh, the pres­i­dent has se­cret tapes.’ ”

He was stunned by the promi­nence of a Ja­panese Amer­i­can, Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, in the con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Pres­i­dent Nixon. It was a jar­ring coun­ter­point to the racism in his own neigh­bor­hood.

“You’re just try­ing to get dig­nity and re­spect, and you’re think­ing, ‘Oh, how did that guy get to be a United States se­na­tor?’ ”

Chi­ang grad­u­ated in 1984 from the Univer­sity of South Florida in Tampa, then in­terned on Capi­tol Hill while earn­ing a law de­gree at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton. He worked for one Demo­cratic con­gress­man from Illi­nois (Lane Evans) and two from Cal­i­for­nia (Nor­man Mineta and Robert Mat­sui).

“I was al­ways in­ter­ested in pub­lic pol­icy,” Chi­ang said. “I fell in love with it in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.”

In 1988, he moved to Los An­ge­les to work down­town at the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. He set­tled in Chatsworth. But the job — screen­ing cor­po­rate pen­sion plans — left him “emo­tion­ally bar­ren,” Chi­ang said.

He quickly left the IRS to work on the cam­paign for Propo­si­tion 100, a mea­sure to re­ward good driv­ers with lower car-in­sur­ance rates. Vot­ers re­jected it, but Chi­ang was hooked on cam­paign work.

For a decade, he bounced from one to the next: Gray Davis for con­troller, Kath­leen Brown for trea­surer, Mel Levine for U.S. Se­nate, Bar­bara Boxer for U.S. Se­nate, Don Per­ata for con­troller, Brown again — this time for gov­er­nor.

Chi­ang was an all-pur­pose op­er­a­tive, rais­ing money, writ­ing speeches and round­ing up po­lit­i­cal sup­port. He also took staff jobs for Davis at the con­troller’s of­fice and for Boxer at her Se­nate of­fice in L.A.

“He’s in­cred­i­bly com­pe­tent, he’s very smart and he’s very lik­able — kind of rare in the busi­ness,” said Marc Litch­man, who in the 1980s and ’90s raised money with Chi­ang for West­side and San Fer­nando Val­ley can­di­dates.

“A lot of peo­ple fold un­der the pres­sure of all that re­jec­tion or peo­ple dodg­ing you, and John, he took it in stride,” he said.

Chi­ang’s gen­uine fond­ness for po­lit­i­cal events — nights, week­ends, no mat­ter — was strik­ing to Bob Blu­men­field, a long­time friend now on the L.A. City Coun­cil.

“It’s al­most fright­en­ing how much of his life he’s given to be­ing ev­ery­where,” Blu­men­field said.

Fol­low­ing Chi­ang’s path was his more out­go­ing younger sis­ter, Joyce. She, too, earned a law de­gree at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. Af­ter a stint at the con­gres­sional of­fice of Democrat Howard Berman of the San Fer­nando Val­ley, she went to work as a lawyer at what was then the Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice. Chi­ang saw a fu­ture for his sis­ter in elected of­fice.

But one evening in Jan­uary 1999, she van­ished on her way home to the apart­ment that she shared with their brother Roger in Wash­ing­ton’s Dupont Cir­cle. She was 28. A few months later, her body washed up on the Po­tomac River. Po­lice ul­ti­mately con­cluded the cause was homi­cide, but no killer was caught.

“She was the per­son I was closest to in the world, so her loss is dev­as­tat­ing,” Chi­ang said, his voice crack­ing.

Trou­ble struck the fam­ily again in 2005, when Roger Chi­ang ad­mit­ted to em­bez­zling more than $360,000 from the Demo­cratic Se­na­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, where he worked as out­reach di­rec­tor. He served a year in prison.

John Chi­ang, who has no chil­dren, is sep­a­rated from his wife of 10 years. In his scant spare time, he likes to visit his six god­chil­dren, play poker or watch sports or “Game of Thrones” with friends.

When he cam­paigns, Chi­ang de­scribes him­self as a “tough, strong fis­cal watch­dog.” He takes credit for un­cov­er­ing $9.5 bil­lion in waste, fraud and abuse in state and lo­cal gov­ern­ment spend­ing.

“It’s not just about the num­bers, it’s about val­ues — where you put the money,” Chi­ang told a dozen young Democrats eat­ing taquitos and sip­ping mar­gar­i­tas at a karaoke stop in Santa Ana. “That’s why I’m tough with the buck — be­cause it helps you re­duce stu­dent debt.”

When the karaoke started, he stepped on­stage and gamely launched into a ren­di­tion of the Ea­gles’ “Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia,” ex­pos­ing his off-key singing. He tried to mute it by pass­ing the mi­cro­phone to oth­ers.

Chi­ang likes to en­gage crowds by ask­ing each per­son to share a dream be­fore pos­ing a ques­tion, a re­quest that be­fud­dles many.

“My dream is to elim­i­nate Ger­man cock­roaches,” one woman de­clared to a roar of laugh­ter at a Dis­ney­land pest-con­trol con­fer­ence where Chi­ang was the fea­tured speaker.

Even­tu­ally, Chi­ang will mar­ket him­self in 30-sec­ond tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials to give Cal­i­for­ni­ans a bet­ter sense of who he is. For now, he’s mostly dash­ing from one event to an­other — an Is­raeli Con­sulate re­cep­tion, an En­cino Cham­ber of Com­merce lunch, a gala for Fil­ipino Amer­i­can lawyers. That ap­proach got him this far, and he’s stick­ing to it.

Mariah Tauger For The Times

STATE TREA­SURER John Chi­ang, a Demo­cratic can­di­date for gov­er­nor, cam­paigns in Santa Bar­bara.

Mariah Tauger For The Times

JOHN CHI­ANG vis­its the Sum­mer Sol­stice Fes­ti­val in Santa Bar­bara in June. For the first time in his ca­reer, the way that his low-key de­meanor comes off on tele­vi­sion will mat­ter — all the more so in a race against fel­low Democrats An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa and Gavin New­som.

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