Polls show that among the candidates running for governor, state Treasurer John Chiang is struggling to get traction. Yet Chiang says he’s the right guy to defend California against attacks from the Trump administration, and he points to two defining moments in his political career that he says prove his point.
Speaking at the California Democratic Party convention earlier this year, he began by listing all the times he’d stood up to what he called “big powerful interests," including an incident with former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"As controller, I stood up to the Governator and won," Chiang told the cheering crowd.
In 2008, Schwarzenegger ordered the pay of nearly 200,000 state employees to be reduced to the federal minimum wage until the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a budget the governor supported. Chiang, who was state controller at the time and responsible for cutting the checks, refused.
“They were innocent parties to a political fight and they needed a champion," Chiang said. "They were the underdogs and they shouldn’t have been used as a political pawn.”
Schwarzenegger sued but Chiang still refused to comply. Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor, said Chiang’s actions took political courage, but they could rub some people the wrong way.
“Obviously, he knows the merits of the policy, has a great deal of experience and knows many of the legislators," Pitney said. "But his independence could lead to some friction.”
It already has. In 2011, the Democratic Legislature was involved in yet another budget standoff. This was the first time lawmakers were working under Proposition 25, which allowed their pay to be docked every day the budget was late after the June 15 deadline.
The Legislature ultimately approved a budget by the deadline, but Chiang said, in his estimation, it wasn’t a balanced budget, which he said was required by a separate state law. So, a few days later he started withholding lawmakers’ checks. They were not happy.
“I think the reaction of the vast majority of members was that it was an exercise in grandstanding," says Roger Dickinson, who was a State Assembly member at the time.
Lawmakers were faced with making billions of dollars in cuts that budget cycle.
“And then to observe another politician say, ‘Oh, they’re not doing their job and should have their pay cut,’ I think that cut fairly deep," Dickinson said.
The Legislature ultimately sued Chiang over his actions and won. A state appeals court found Chiang had overstepped his authority in withholding the pay, but he remains defiant.
"The judge said, in effect, whatever the Legislature passes is in fact a balanced budget," Chiang said. "And we know, in fact, that’s not the truth.”
Despite some lingering bad feelings, Chiang has received several high-profile endorsements from legislators, including one from Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.