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John Chiang: Don’t Underestimate the ‘Underdog’

By Melody Yuan

Sept. 05, 2016
California State Treasurer John Chiang talks about his gubernatorial election campaign at CAUSE event
California State Treasurer John Chiang shares his plans of running for California Governer in 2018. (Photo credit): albert liu | phorography

John Chiang is California’s 33rd State Treasurer. He has been elected to statewide office three times: twice as controller and as state treasurer in 2014, and oversees trillions of transactional dollars for the state every year. He has recently announced his campaign to run for California Governor in 2018

What are some of the biggest motivating factors that push you to run for governor?

California is such an incredible state with really spectacular people, and the opportunity to help Californians succeed in their lives is something I really aspire to do. We all come from different backgrounds and family circumstances. My parents were immigrants who came to this country and I feel incredibly blessed to have this opportunity and I want to make sure we can pass along these opportunities to the next generation. People residing in California come from everywhere, and when they’re happy, we see them achieve great things. You can become a governor, an astronaut or a professor at CalTech, and I want to help Californians achieve their dreams.

What are the top things on your agenda that you want to accomplish as governor?

I want to make sure that we stay on the right fiscal track. We were so lost in 2009—we’ve found our way since then, but we need to now stay on track.

Here we are in Los Angeles and we still see deep poverty. Go a few blocks from here (downtown Los Angeles) and you see so many camps of homelessness. So, how do we lift that one third of the population in California who still reside in poverty? How do we get them the education that they need to put a roof over their heads? How do we eliminate food insecurity and give them better lives?

Also, for those who are innovative, how can we help them feel supported as they pursue their inventive endeavors? Entrepreneurs and innovators have to deal with the hardships of running a business while trying to create and achieve something. We have to be sensitive to their hardships and let them focus on what their big dreams are.

As a finance expert, what policies would you implement to help grow California’s economy to support existing local businesses or to attract businesses?

An example of a policy is from last year when we successfully advocated for the continuation of the sales tax exclusion that CAEATFA (California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority) had started. CAEATFA’s predecessor and former Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was trying to get Tesla into California and they came up with the sales tax exclusion as a result. It first launched in Sacramento, and then they formalized it in the state in order to reduce any scattered efforts to attract businesses. The program was about to expire last year, but we were able to work with the Governor’s staff and advocate to Governor Jerry Brown so that we can continue to have the Teslas, the Faraday Futures, and the aerospace companies stay in California.

We also have to think about the future, and students are the future. The University of California has worked very hard to try and reduce costs, but many graduates are still shouldering a great amount of debt. The University of California undergraduate, on average, will be $19,000 in debt upon graduation. For other places, it can be even more expensive. So, you come out with student debt and you try and find a job, and then you have to pay the bills and housing on top of that—it’s a very formidable financial burden, and I’d like to do something about it.

Talking about housing, projections from some economists show that there will be a five percent increase in housing across California. Last year, I did the first rewrite in affordable housing regulations for the state. I sit on three out of four of the state’s housing authorities, and I chair two of them. We make sure that the public incentives and the private capital in partnership work well together. We’ve made some regulation changes to lift the cap and try to have these authorities work on greater and deeper affordability, so that people in the lower income gap can have access to housing. Everyone should have decent housing whether you’re a recent graduate, someone with special needs, or a senior citizen.

Can you talk more about your one stop shop California business incentive? How does this incentive help businesses specifically?

There are a lot of programs out there that are trying to help businesses—a lot of good willed people on state, county and local government levels. The problem is, it all gets so convoluted and the programs are complex, so people don’t know which government agency might have a program that can help them. Just within the treasurer’s office, we have over a dozen economic development authorities and thousands of programs! So, what we’re currently trying to do is to create a matching function that starts with the premise of, “tell us a little bit about yourself,” from what your company does to where your company is located. Then, we can come back with more information about whether or not the company qualifies for certain programs. We’re trying to integrate more technology to make the whole process smoother and easier so that businesses won’t have to fill out an application for every program that’s out there.

What are some things you’ve learned as state Treasurer that you can apply as Governor?

I’ve held every elected state financial position from the board of equalization of taxes, the controllers of state chief fiscal officer to now being the treasurer. I’ve sat on positions that fund the California government, so it’s about bringing all of that knowledge and putting it together as a package, which made me an effective Controller and the most successful auditor in California history during weaker economic times. I asked the question, how do we bring the comprehensive package to help individuals, businesses and nonprofit and religious organizations succeed? We did over $9 billion of audit findings, because people work hard for their tax payer dollars and we wanted to make sure that they knew we were spending that money efficiently.

I was also the first elected state official to free taxes for people in the lower income gap. Most of the people we see on the streets here are working and struggling to make ends meet. We used to have those stories where we would help people find funding because they didn’t know that they had worked and were entitled to the money. They also didn’t have the financial education or access to someone who could help them walk through the process. We’ve since partnered with nonprofit organizations and here in Los Angeles, my office is the second or third largest participant and provider for people that we serve under VITA (volunteer income tax assistance program.)

In a recent L.A. Times article, you were mentioned to have launched an ‘underdog’ campaign. Could you elaborate on how you expect to win the race as an underdog?

It’s the underdog mentality. Relatively speaking, my team and I have done well. In the last election cycle, I had the second highest amount of votes in the state after Jerry Brown. There are people who like the work that I’ve done, and we’ve also carried over the most amount of money from the campaign. So yes, it’s an underdog campaign, but it’s not that people aren’t supportive or that we don’t have the political institutions in place—it’s just that when you come from a community that hasn’t historically been in power, or when you come from outside of the traditional system, people automatically view you as the underdog. Just think back to when Bill Clinton or Barack Obama first ran—people had the same reaction. So, it’s the same thing with the California governors. Honestly, I’m excited and it’s good to try and bring new people into the circle of opportunity and power so that they can make meaningful contributions.

How much of an impact do you think the Asian community will have on your election?

The Asian community here is very energetic, but there are other groups too. It’s not just because I’m Asian American, but more so because I’ve been actively involved with the Asian community since 1988 and throughout the years of long relationship building which truly makes the difference. Whether it’s for the healthcare community or the legal community, I’ve built these incredible and amazing relationships. What I love is bringing people from disparate communities to participate with the Asian American community. I’ve brought Jewish American communities, Latin communities and Asian American communities together to encourage more frequent engagement because really, that’s what we need today. We’ve witnessed what’s happening around the world from France, Turkey and in our own country. It’s important that we see each other for who we are and celebrate our cultures. Yes, there are going to be some differences, but that’s what makes life interesting. What’s more important is asking what’s in people’s hearts, what’s in people’s spirits, and if they are good people. These are the things that really transcend race or ethnicity and create a bond. Honestly, I’ve never run an ‘Asian’ district. I mean, my best friend’s Latino and my godchildren are biracial. I think that so many people are struggling today but once everyone gets it together, our better sides are going to come out.

What do you do for fun?

I like hanging out with friends, I swim and I walk more than I run. I also love to read. But, my weekend in a nutshell is more like going to events all the time and it’s fun, I get to meet a lot of great people and it makes my life interesting. Coming into contact with so many people, you either listen to their stories and relate to them because it’s familiar or are intrigued because it’s very different.

I try and read a book every month and the most recent book I’ve read was written by Amos Oz on a Tale of Love and Darkness. I also read A Righteous Mind in January, which explores the science behind people’s biases and is relevant today because it talks about why people just can’t get along. My February book was by the Public Policy Institute on water policy. I definitely try to read a variety of books.

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