Chiang’s Pay-to-Play Troubles Remind Us: California Has Too Many Statewide Elected Officials

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)

Given his reputation for fiscal probity, a Sacramento Bee report showing that John Chiang has a pay-to-play approach to this job – steering tax breaks to his political donors – might seem surprising.

It isn’t.

Statewide elected posts like the two Chiang has held – controller and treasurer – have long been used for pay-to-play purposes. Heck, pay-to-play is practically their reason for existence.

Ideally, such posts would be appointed posts. Instead, California lets lesser-known officials build careers by electing people to statewide posts – lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, insurance commissioner and sate superintendent of public instruction. The people holding these powers do have significant powers (with the exception of the lieutenant governor), but they get little scrutiny from the public and the press.

So naturally, part of the job is to get donations from people and interests that the decisions of these statewide elected officials affect. The state treasurer, who sells bonds, has the most potentially lucrative of these posts. The Bee found that the treasurer’s bond decisions helped his donors. Go figure.

Chiang richly deserves the hit he’s taking here. He’s a dedicated public servant who has a real chance to knock off the favorites Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa in the governor’s race. But he’s oversold himself as some exemplar of fiscal probity. He’s actually a very smart and hardworking operator, with real political skills and close ties to the powerful California Teachers Association. Which is say: he’s no reformer or outsider—he plays the game.

I’m hoping that the controversy around Chiang becomes bigger – if only because it might make Californians reconsider the wisdom of electing such officials. Because as long as these are elected offices, Californians will see more scandals like this one.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.