For most of the last 18 months, California’s next run for governor has shaped up as a battle of flash and dash, with two of the gaudiest candidates the state has ever seen planning to face off, plus the possible entry of a billionaire or two.
But a monkey wrench may have been thrown this spring into the best-laid plans of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the ultra-wealthy Tom Steyer and Steve Westly when state Treasurer John Chiang quietly let it be known he’s “interested” in the race.
Unlike Newsom and Villaraigosa, Chiang doesn’t have to run for any new office two years from now, when current Gov. Jerry Brown will be termed out after a total of four terms in the statehouse. And unlike the two fabulously wealthy additional prospects – Steyer and former state Controller and eBay executive Westly – Chiang can’t wait until the last moment to decide and then simply reach for his checkbook.
If he were interested only in job security, Chiang would just run for another quiet term as treasurer. He also had the option of waiting to see whether Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein opts to retire after 2018, when her fourth full term is up.
But Chiang may be bored in the treasurer’s job, where he supervises sales of state bonds and makes few headlines. His eight years as state controller – the officer in charge of state check-writing – were much more exciting, including his defying an order from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut the pay of more than 200,000 state workers and another time when he suspended state legislators’ salaries because they missed a deadline for passing a budget.
No such excitement yet as treasurer.
Meanwhile, former San Francisco Mayor Newsom will be termed out after his current term and must try for another office if he wants to stay in politics. Villaraigosa, meanwhile, never seems to stop running for something.
Both have had problems in the past keeping their pants zipped. Newsom famously bedded the wife of his former top aide while married to current Fox TV personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. They divorced in 2005. Villaraigosa’s marriage failed after his liaisons with a former television reporter. That was especially telling, as half the current surname of the former Tony Villar came from his ex-wife, Corina Raigosa, whom he married in 1987.
Newsom, meanwhile, plays up his second marriage to actress Jennifer Siebel.
Voters seeking a candidate without moral or marital failings can seemingly find one in Chiang, who will also have a strong base among the steadily-increasing Asian-American voter bloc. He is just the fifth Asian-American elected to statewide office in California.
If he ends up running – and he plainly leans that way – he will provide other contrasts beside his solid-seeming marriage (Chiang said in a late-2014 interview that he would only seek higher office if that was OK with his wife).
A longtime moderate and a tax lawyer, he says that “Ninety percent of what goes into (government) decisions should be based on expert knowledge. That’s how (I’ve) tried to do it as controller and treasurer. But in politics, decisions are often 90 percent political and just 10 percent based on expertise. I don’t like that.”
That kind of moderate, almost technocratic stance, combined with his past willingness to stand up to higher officials attempting illegal things, could draw enough voters to him to ease past both the billionaires and the far-better-known Newsom or Villaraigosa into a November 2018 runoff – especially if he can draw a significant number of Republican votes. So far, no major Republican has indicated a desire to run.
Chiang considered for a while seeking the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated late this year by Barbara Boxer, for whom he once worked. But he stayed out of that campaign, perhaps because, as he observed, “The Senate looks good, but you have the drawback of needing to chase 50 other votes. The governor, meanwhile, leads the largest state, so you have the chance to shape the future more than in any office except president.”
You won’t see Newsom or Villaraigosa talk in such down-to-earth terms. Both prefer grander rhetoric. But one thing for sure: Chiang’s likely entrance just made the next run for governor a lot more interesting than it was before.