John Chiang Is the Wonk Who Would Be King

California State Treasurer and would-be governor John Chiang showed up at the Palm restaurant in Downtown this month. He’s running against candidates including Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa.

DTLA - When John Chiang appeared at a Downtown luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum this month, the person who introduced him noted that the California State Treasurer and candidate for governor is a rabid “Game of Thrones” fan. This was promising, and I instantly began wondering which character he’s most like: Is Chiang a heroic Jon Snow, ready to unite disparate people and lead an army? Is he a power-playing Tywin Lannister, pulling strings and working angles behind the scenes? Or is he more like Daenerys Targaryen, controlling literal or figurative dragons that will rain fire upon enemies?

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Over the next hour I learned that Chiang is none of these. Instead he’s like Benny the Bean Counter, a bespectacled, fiscally prudent and wonkish type who was cut from the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s books because the highest element of drama concerning Benny is whether he’ll use the blue or gold abacus. 

OK, Benny the Bean Counter doesn’t exist, and Chiang isn’t quite that bland, though he is that wonkish, which isn’t a bad thing. And even if I’m being facetious, I’m also serious. That’s because while Chiang may have the chops you want in a California CEO, he’s going to have a difficult time outshining his personality-plus gubernatorial competitors, Lt. Gov. and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and ex-L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

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Chiang is part of the madding crowd trying to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown (former state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin is in the race too), who will be termed out in 2018. Chiang’s three years as Treasurer and, before that, two terms as State Controller, provide a financial acumen that could prove crucial. Chiang also spent time on the State Board of Equalization, though I won’t go into that, because no one has any idea what the board does beyond equalize the heck out of things. 

Chiang is making some waves. A few days after that luncheon at the Palm, he held a press conference in Boyle Heights to announce the endorsement of 14th District City Councilman José Huizar, who years ago had been a Villaraigosa ally. It was savvy politicking by Chiang in a rival’s territory.

Chiang is building an impressive war chest, with $5.1 million raised so far. That’s dwarfed by Newsom’s $12.8 million, but it shows that he’s come to play (AnVil has $3.5 million).

It all builds to that big question: Is Chiang too boring to win?

Taking on Ah-nold

If you’re familiar with Chiang, it’s likely because you remember his 2008 battle with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A budget fight was raging in Sacramento, and Schwarzenegger was threatening to slash the pay of hundreds of thousands of state workers to minimum wage, then $6.55 an hour, which was barely enough to see a Schwarzenegger movie, much less buy stale popcorn. The Controller stood up to the Terminator and the employees got their money.

Watch Chiang and you’ll realize that he knows his stuff, even if a lot of that stuff is sleepy-time state banking details. He tries to balance out the financial minutiae with things that are more voter-friendly yet still in his bailiwick (I’ll return “bailiwick” to the 19th century after I finish this column) — a talking point these days is California’s severe shortage of affordable housing, and how Chiang is trying to use state tax credits to foment more construction. He lost me when he veered into discussing green bond financing.

Chiang is bullish on investing in California’s infrastructure, and can offer the occasional media-friendly sound bite — he told the luncheon crowd, “We can’t be great going forward if we have third-world infrastructure.” He advocates getting a handle on pensions, an issue that can resonate with voters. 

Does he connect? Kinda sorta. He appeared comfortable in front of the crowd of Palm power players, and displayed an interesting habit of referring to specific individuals. He mentioned at least four people in the room by name, and if some of them sign campaign donation checks with a few zeros, all the better. 

Yet Chiang lacks flash. With a dark suit, a red-striped tie and black glasses, he seemed like the banker he is. His speaking style was confident and informed, but also dull and devoid of the rallying moments you want to excite a crowd, even a small one. For long stretches he gesticulated with his right hand while his left was jammed in his pants pocket, like a crab had latched onto his palm and wouldn’t let go.

He also showed an ability to squander a softball slow-pitched down the center of the plate. When asked how he differentiates himself from his rivals, Chiang began, “I would argue that I get the job done.” He refrained from criticizing Newsom or AnVil. He referenced his track record, then lost any momentum by discussing a meeting with Exxon shareholders. 

Given a homerun question, Chiang knocked a solid single. 

Excitement Factor

Being exciting isn’t a requirement to win office. After all, Gray Davis was elected governor of California and Jim Hahn was once mayor of Los Angeles. But neither of those guys lasted two terms — charisma counts for something.

That’s part of Chiang’s challenge. So is the fact that Newsom and Villaraigosa both ran cities and have voter bases in strategic geographic and demographic areas. They’re telegenic, with records of progressive values at a time when the aura of Bernie still berns, and when the reign of Trump presents California as the nation’s western wall of resistance.

Chiang has a unique angle to worm his way in. “We’re the fiscally responsible progressive,” he told the Current Affairs crowd. He soon added, “At the end of the day, most people, most Californians, want someone who can get the job done, who can make it work.”

Newsom and AnVil both have flaws. Each suffered a damaging extramarital affair, and Villaraigosa was a mediocre mayor at best. Plus, once you get beyond their key bases of support, you wind up with a lot of Californians who lean conservative. That may not be definitive in a June primary, but if Chiang finishes in the top two and moves on to the November runoff, you can see him as more palatable to Republicans in places such as Bakersfield and Orange County.

Chiang seems ready to swing big. By all accounts he is willing to do do the work the governor’s race requires. His website is decent, even if the main insignia, with a green badge-shaped outline around his name, looks like a pudgy arrowhead turned upside down.

This is a fairly calm period, but like all elections, we’ll eventually reach a state of war. Will Chiang emerge victorious? His record and smarts will help, but he’ll need something else. If he wants to be governor, he’ll have to harness the heroic unification power of Jon Snow and display the will-twisting machinations of Tywin Lannister. The ability to rain fire on his opponents wouldn’t hurt either.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017