John Chiang: California's New Political Player

The California Democratic Party has a lot of power. What it doesn't have is a lot of youth. That's true of the state'...
by | February 9, 2009

Chiang_small The California Democratic Party has a lot of power. What it doesn't have is a lot of youth.

That's true of the state's two U.S. senators. Dianne Feinstein is 75 and Barbara Boxer is 68.

Then, take a look at the Democrats who are running for governor. Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, 64, first ran for governor in 1982. Attorney General Jerry Brown, 70, was first elected governor in 1974. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, 67, also might run. Other statewide elected Democrats include Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, 57, and Secretary of State Debra Bowen who is a spring chicken at 53.

The youth among California Democrats is supposed to come from the mayors, although Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is surprisingly old at 56. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is 41. Both have engaged in "youthful indiscretions" (to borrow a phrase from Henry Hyde) and I have doubts about the statewide prospects of either of them, but especially Newsom.

Why do I mention all of this? Because one of the few youthful figures among California Democrats, State Controller John Chiang, has greatly expanded his profile in recent weeks. If he plays his cards correctly, Chiang, 46, could be a leading player in California politics for years to come.

The Wall Street Journal has a profile of Chiang:

John Chiang, the state's heretofore low-profile controller, has grabbed Californians' attention by delaying tax refunds and welfare checks while engaging in increasingly snippy feuds with Gov. Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers, berating their inaction in speeches and news releases.

The 46-year-old Mr. Chiang (pronounced CHUNG), a Democrat elected in 2006 to a four-year term, oversees the state's nearly depleted reserves, which need an infusion of money through a revamped budget. Gov. Schwarzenegger and state legislators have missed a self-imposed Feb. 1 deadline to balance the budget, which is expected to have a $42 billion shortfall by mid-2010.

...

In an interview last week, Mr. Chiang stepped up his rhetoric, saying that if negotiations drag on much longer, the state may issue IOUs for tax refunds and paychecks for state workers, or -- in a worst-case scenario -- default, resulting in "massive litigation."

Delaying tax refunds may make for dangerous politics, although it makes a lot of sense for Chiang to present himself as a leading critic of an unpopular governor and a loathed legislature. Chiang still seems like a somewhat unlikely candidate for governor in 2010, but fairly soon he may decide that he no longer needs to defer to his elders.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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