Weeks, perhaps months, before taking their oaths of office for statewide posts like lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general and insurance commissioner, the five Democrats in those jobs plainly were thinking of their impending runs for higher office.
For the first time in more than 20 years, there’s a strong likelihood that both California seats in the U.S. Senate will open up within the next four years. There is certainty that Jerry Brown will leave the governor’s office after a record four terms.
No one doubts that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris will go for higher office soon. If you’re a significant Democratic campaign contributor, your phone may already have rung. Newsom tried for governor once before, but was thwarted by Brown. And it’s been a given for years that Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney, has higher ambitions. They share a campaign manager, so probably will seek different offices.
New Secretary of State Alex Padilla may wait another cycle or two before trying to move up; he won by only about 560,000 votes last fall, the second-lowest margin for any constitutional officer.
Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones will also likely move on when his new term ends, but his relatively low profile might make him more likely to seek another secondary statewide office like attorney general before trying to move farther up. At 53, he’s probably young enough to wait a little while.
There’s also the ever-ambitious former mayor of Los Angeles and Assembly speaker, Antonio Villaraigosa.
Perhaps the least known and most accomplished of the corps of likely Democratic candidates is John Chiang, the newly elected treasurer who served eight years on the state Board of Equalization and eight more as state controller. He has sometimes clashed with legislative leaders and ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Chiang, 52, was a high school classmate of Jones in Chicago. He has a reputation as more of a technocrat than a politician, and that’s the way he likes it.
“In government, when we make decisions, ideally 90 percent of what goes into it should be based on expert knowledge,” he said in an interview in his 48th floor Los Angeles office. “That’s how we’ve tried to do it in the controller’s office and how we’ll do it as treasurer. But in politics, decisions are often 90 percent political and just 10 percent based on expertise. I don’t like that.”
Chiang tangled with Schwarzenegger several times during the movie muscleman’s seven-plus years as governor, most notably when he defied a 2008 Schwarzenegger order to cut the pay of more than 200,000 state workers to the federal minimum wage of $6.55 an hour during a state budget standoff. Chiang continued paying workers their regular salaries. A year later, he issued IOUs to pay state bills during another budget deadlock.
Two years later, acting like a non-partisan, he invoked a law just passed via a ballot initiative and suspended legislative salaries when the lawmakers didn’t pass a budget by the legal deadline.
Yes, Newsom while San Francisco mayor was the first public official to sanction gay marriage and Harris is one of the two highest-ranking African-American officials in California history. But neither has taken the kinds of political risks Chiang did.
One of just five Asian-Americans ever elected to statewide office here, Chiang does not deny he’s interested in the jobs likely to open up, but he’s unsure if or when he might move on them. This son of Taiwanese immigrants sounds almost as if he’s coining a new Confucian paradox when he notes that “There are lost opportunities if you don’t move early, but speed kills.”
He will likely move, but deliberately. “Any of these jobs would be a phenomenal opportunity. I think about the issues all the time,” he says. “When we talk about financial issues and trade, the Senate looks good, but you have the drawback of needing to chase 50 other votes. The governor, meanwhile, leads the largest state in an invaluable country, so you have the chance to shape the future more than in any office except president.”
Yes, his wife Terry sometimes has said she’d like him to leave politics for a higher-paying private job. He’s demurred.
The bottom line: Although Newsom and Harris and Villaraigosa are sure to generate more hype and make more noise as they pursue their next jobs, it would be foolish to ignore John Chiang.