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.
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 showhorse 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.
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, ‘Oooooh, 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?’ ”
“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 Brownfor 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 ’80s 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, got 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 years old. 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 on stage 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 on stage.
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 FilipinoAmerican lawyers. That approach got him this far, and he’s sticking to it.
About this story: This is one in a series of articles about the candidates vying to succeed Jerry Brown as governor of California in the 2018 election. Learn more about them at latimes.com/CA2018.