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Controller's unlikely turn in spotlight

Chiang, described as 'a numbers guy,' makes waves with decision to dock lawmakers' pay.

June 23, 2011|Shane Goldmacher and Evan Halper

SACRAMENTO — As a high school kid in Illinois, John Chiang ran for student council on a populist platform: ridding the lunchroom jukebox of disco music.

"That was the major wedge issue," recalled a friend who was his campaign partner. Disco was fading. Punk and new wave were coming in. They won.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, June 25, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
John Chiang: In some copies of the June 23 Section A, an article about John Chiang, California's controller, gave his age as 49. Chiang is 48.

Chiang, now the Golden State's controller, became vice president of the student body -- a notable achievement for one of the school's few Asian kids and the target of name-calling and racial slurs. The friend was Dave Jones, who today is California's insurance commissioner.

This week, the boyish-looking, mild-mannered Chiang took another bold stand: In his capacity as the state's cashier, he made headlines by deciding to dock state lawmakers' pay. Their budget math "simply did not add up," he said, and he hit them with voter-approved sanctions for late spending plans.

However much it angered legislators, the move delighted the public. Chiang's Facebook page was flooded with attaboys. Clearly, said Capitol observers, his unofficial campaign for governor had begun, three years before the office will even be open.

Chiang, a 48-year-old Democrat, has been in politics for more than two decades, but there is still a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" quality about him. He stumbles over a sound bite, and his role is decidedly unsexy: processing payments and monitoring government cash flow.

Clearly more comfortable diving into the tax code than glad-handing voters and political donors, "he describes himself as a tax lawyer, an accountant and a numbers guy," said Barbara O'Connor, a public affairs strategist in Sacramento.

He is also the eldest child of Taiwanese immigrants. His parents came to the U.S. with little in the 1950s.

"As my mom oftentimes pointed out when the kids started to complain about things in our household, my dad came to this country with three shirts, two pairs of pants and less than $100 in his pocket, trying to learn his fifth language to write his dissertation in chemical engineering," Chiang said in a 2008 speech at UC Berkeley.

He was born in New York, and several years later, the family moved to the South Side of Chicago -- among the first Asian American families in the neighborhood, Chiang said. Rocks occasionally burst through their windows.

"I remember the ugly racial epithets spray-painted on our garage: 'Go home, gook. Go home, Jap. Go home, chink,' " he said in the speech.

"Of all the things that took place during that time, the most powerful notion for me was the feeling of isolation and exclusion."

School was also a challenge. Chiang was "subject to quite a bit of hostility and prejudice," Jones recalled in an interview last year. "Here's a kid who's thrown into a large public high school where, besides his brother, he's basically the only Chinese American kid."

Chiang went to law school at Georgetown and then landed a job as a tax specialist. But the work was unsatisfying. "Life's path was askew," he said in the speech. "My soul and spirit were uncomfortable."

He soon began volunteering his tax expertise in the community and plunged into Democratic activism. Later, he worked on the staffs of former Gov. Gray Davis, when Davis held the job Chiang now has, and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. In 1998, he won a seat on the Board of Equalization, an obscure but powerful state body that oversees the collection of tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. It was his first elected office.

Six days after Chiang was sworn in, tragedy struck. His younger sister Joyce vanished in Washington, D.C., where she worked. Her body was found months later on the shore of the Potomac, identifiable only through DNA testing. Like her brother, Joyce Chiang had been politically engaged, as college student body president and later as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Howard Berman.

Many political oddsmakers assumed Chiang's ascent in public office would begin and end at the tax board. But in 2006, he ran for controller. He was widely viewed as the dark-horse candidate in a Democratic primary against former state Sen. Joe Dunn, a charismatic trial lawyer who had led the Legislature's investigation of Enron's role in the state energy crisis.

But Chiang, the wonky accountant nobody knew, mobilized a formidable network of local unions, community groups and immigrant organizations that propelled him to victory. He jokes that his mother, who had always wanted him to be a doctor, was not impressed.

"Why don't you run for an office that people know?" she told him when he ran for state controller. In an auditorium full of Berkeley students who were asked if they knew what he did, only five raised their hands. "I want to thank you all for verifying I still haven't reached my mom's goal," he joked.

Chiang may finally be positioned to run for an office that pleases his mother.

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