California’s political cognoscenti took notice this week when state Treasurer John Chiang reported raising $2.3 million in the first 45 days of his campaign for governor.
The total, when combined with the $3.3 million Chiang already had on hand from his 2014 campaign, means that he’s already competitive, moneywise, with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s seemingly been running for governor forever.
Many of Chiang’s contributors are either of Asian descent – and not merely Chinese American – or are Asian-owned businesses, led by Sacramento fast-food tycoon C.C. Yin. They are providing a solid support base that establishes him as a real contender in what could be a multi-Democrat contest.
We may have seen this scenario before, three-plus decades ago, when, then as now, the flashy lieutenant governor of California was an early candidate to step up.
Lt. Gov. Mike Curb was a songwriter/music producer (the Mike Curb Congregation) whose political career was sponsored by “the kingmakers,” a Southern California-based bloc that had fostered Ronald Reagan’s historic transition from show business to politics.
The GOP bigwigs had smoothed the path for Curb’s 1982 governorship bid, even persuading the ambitious mayor of San Diego, Pete Wilson, to step aside and make a successful U.S. Senate run.
Thus, Curb seemed to be a shoo-in for the Republican nomination, until he and other GOP figures gathered in Sacramento in December 1980 to cast their electoral votes for Reagan in that year’s presidential election.
After the pro forma presidential vote in the state Senate chambers, George Deukmejian, a mild-mannered former legislator who’d been elected attorney general just two years earlier, was chatting with a couple of Capitol journalists, including yours truly, and quietly mentioned that he thinking about naming an “exploratory committee” for governor.
Curb was standing just a few feet away.
It was a little disconcerting, because just a few months earlier, during a conversation at the Republican National Convention in Detroit – a show that Curb had directed from a booth overlooking the convention floor – Deukmejian had expressed a distinct lack of interest in running for governor.
Later, after Deukmejian formally announced, it became apparent that Republican figures who resented the high-handed tactics of the self-appointed “kingmakers” had waged a quiet campaign to persuade Deukmejian to run, fueled with promises of seed money from his fellow Armenian Americans, whose support had helped him become attorney general.
It demonstrated how an ethnic group could help one of its own make an important initial step on the political ladder and, in the process, establish the group as a political player.
Deukmejian not only bested Curb in the Republican primary but defeated Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley twice in winning two gubernatorial terms.
Chiang’s diffident personality contrasts with that of Newsom just as much as Deukmejian’s did with Curb, and his early support by fellow Asian Americans establishes him as a real contender in 2018.