Why His Opponents Are Worried about John Chiang

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


Gavin Newsom may be the frontrunner for governor. Antonio Villaraigosa may have the benefits of experience and a strong record as Assembly speaker and mayor of Los Angeles. And John Cox, as the lone Republican in the race, may have a good shot at getting into the top two.

But don’t count out John Chiang.

His opponents aren’t.

And if I were forced to put money on the race now, I’d bet on Chiang.

Why? He has advantages that his opponents can’t replicate.

For one thing, he’s a humble, admirable, easy-to-like personality. Newsom and Villaraigosa, both strong mayors who would be huge improvements on the current do-little occupant of that office, are brilliant and risk-taking — but polarizing figures, politically and personally. Chiang has never faced significant scandal; Newsom and Villaraigosa have baggage.

Chiang also has a good record. He’s won more statewide races than Newsom, the only other figure to win statewide. He’s a strong fundraiser. And his ties to Democratic interest groups – especially the California Teachers Association—are stronger and less complicated than those of his opponents.

But the biggest advantage, say those who have competed against him, is that he outworks opponents. Chiang seems to be everywhere, because he is. The team of Villaraigosa, the last to join the race, is finding that Chiang has already talked to almost everyone they’re reaching out to.

Chiang’s work ethic is not an unalloyed virtue. He may work too hard; he had a heart attack during the Christmas holidays in 2008, at age 46. And as he has attended carefully to the details of his jobs as controller and treasurer, he’s never advanced a clear narrative that defines the state’s future and connects to his political career. God is in the details, yes, but he might achieve more politically by doing fewer small things, and taking some bigger swings.

Newsom has taken nothing for granted. He started sooner, and he is a strong favorite. And Villaraigosa, despite the historic handicap of being an L.A. mayor, has the chops to win. But don’t be surprised if John Chiang is the governor who emerges in the end.

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