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Governor hopeful John Chiang looking to close visibility gap with Northern California tour

09/28/17

San Francisco Chronicle

California treasurer and candidate for governor John Chiang has pretty much lived off his government paycheck during the last six years.

According to Chiang’s tax returns, his average income from 2011 through 2016 was just over $184,000 a year, including his salary as treasurer, his now-estranged wife’s earnings and some small investments. Last year, Chiang made $143,915 as treasurer, though he’s currently earning about $152,000 for the job.

The race to become California’s next governor is awash in cash »

That’s quite a contrast with one of his Democratic rivals in the 2018 race for California governor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who released his taxes in May. Newsom and his wife made an average of $1.4 million a year though their salaries, investments, wineries, restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses between 2010 and 2015.

So far, Chiang and Newsom are the only candidates who have released their state and federal tax returns.

Similar to Newsom, Chiang allowed reporters to review — but not photocopy — six years of returns on Friday.

John Chiang was wandering around Sonoma’s crowded town plaza on a recent evening, surrounded by photographers and video cameras as he did a politician’s stroll among the people out for a visit to the farmers’ market.

A youngster rode up on his bike and asked the obvious question: “Is he someone famous?”

Informed that Chiang was the current state treasurer and a candidate for governor, the boy said, “Oh,” and quickly pedaled away.

For Chiang, a Torrance (Los Angeles County) Democrat who’s on a weeklong “getting to know you” tour of Northern California, that brief encounter is just a sign of the challenges even a man who has spent 19 years in public office has making himself known in a state the size of California.

“I’m out getting to know people,” Chiang said in a quiet moment during his campaign swing Tuesday. “I want people to meet me and then tell their friends about me.”

It’s even a tougher grind for the 55-year-old Chiang, whose political experience has been in low-visibility, “green eyeshade” financial offices: eight years on the state Board of Equalization, two terms as state controller and, since 2014, state treasurer.

His two main Democratic rivals in the race to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown have each been high-profile mayors who were in the news almost every day during their terms: Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in San Francisco.

Newsom also was an early and very public advocate of same-sex marriage, as well as the public face of successful ballot initiatives to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and toughen the state’s gun laws. Villaraigosa spent six years in the state Assembly, including two as speaker, before being elected first to the Los Angeles City Council and then mayor of the nation’s second-largest city, which he led for eight years.

That’s brought both Newsom and Villaraigosa years of the type of visibility Chiang can only dream of. By contrast, the state treasurer’s official website talks about him being the state’s banker, “overseeing trillions of dollars in transactions every year.” Among the accomplishments listed was creating a website that makes “pay, benefits and borrowing costs for state and local governments available online,” as well as “restructuring our state debt to generate $4.2 billion for schools, infrastructure, and public safety.”

Those financial dealings are important, and voters are going to recognize that when they choose a governor, Chiang insisted.

“I’m a different type of Democrat, solidly progressive but fiscally responsible,” he said in an interview. “Californians have big hopes and big dreams, but we can’t reach them without fiscal credibility.”

The campaign will stress the hard work Chiang has done to help keep the state financially secure during both economic hard times and the state’s current slow-motion recovery.

“Instead of talking about what I’m going to do as governor, I’m going to talk about what I have done for California and what I will continue to do,” Chiang said in a subtle dig at Newsom and Villaraigosa.

So far, money hasn’t been an issue for Chiang, who has support from the state’s growing Asian American community, which sees the state treasurer, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan, as one of their own.

While the nearly $9 million in campaign cash Chiang had as of June 30 is less than Newsom’s $16 million, it’s about double the $4.47 million Villaraigosa reported.

But it’s the visibility gap Chiang is trying to close in his campaign swing through the state’s north.

Scheduled stops include a meet-and-greet event in San Rafael, a morning hike with environmentalists on Mount Tamalpais, a speech at a Democratic dinner in Redding, a kayak trip on Eureka’s Humboldt Bay, a tour of Lassen Volcanic National Park, a walk through the Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown (Tuolumne County) and a visit to the Gladding McBean ceramics manufacturing plant, one of the state’s oldest family-owned businesses, in Lincoln (Placer County).

That’s an ambitious schedule. But like every other politician on a campaign road trip, Chiang is working to wring every bit of political mileage out of this tour and the others that are part of his vow to visit all 58 of California’s counties in 52 weeks.

The treasurer is traveling with his own crew of videographers, who shoot video and still photos to post to the “On the Road” section of Chiang’s campaign website.

He’s also traveling with a tiny, two-wheel, green and beige auto-trailer, sporting a large outline of a California golden bear, a “John Chiang for Governor” decal, his #JoinJohn Twitter hashtag and the address of his JohnChiang.com campaign website.

“It’s designed to evoke the California dream, which is something John is always talking about,” said Kate Chapek, a campaign spokeswoman. “It’s a crowd-pleaser and great for getting people’s attention.”

The trailer is also a low-key way to travel, fitting well with Chiang’s regular-guy aura and a tour that avoids the type of “Hey, look at me” campaign stops and raucous rallies and speeches typically seen closer to election day.

On Tuesday, for example, Chiang spent the late afternoon touring the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, hearing about how the family’s efforts at biodynamics, which they called the highest level of organic farming, contribute to the health of the vineyards and the quality of the wine.

Clad in slacks and a rose-colored dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Chiang joined winemaker Joe Benziger in using a tool to stir crushed grapes stored in a covered vat.

The grapes were picked Sept. 14 “and could be going into barrels next week,” Benziger said.

Later, inside the tasting room, Chiang said the tour meshed with some of his past experiences.

“When they talked about the price and type of wine barrels, it took me back to one of our first discussions after I joined the Board of Equalization, when we talked about how to tax wine barrels,” he said.

At Sonoma Plaza later in the evening, Chiang met with Peter Meyerhof, a dentist and local historian, who talked to him about the city’s role as the center of the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, where at least part of California became an independent republic before joining the United States less than a month later.

Chiang’s chat with Meyerhof at the weathered memorial to the short-lived rebellion and his more traditional one-on-one campaigning with the crowd are the type of thing every candidate for governor needs to do, not only to introduce themselves to the state, but to introduce the state to themselves.

“As governor, there’s literally nothing anywhere in the state that isn’t your concern,” Chiang said.

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