Wearing his dark blue banker’s suit, John Chiang, our earnest state treasurer, discusses the finer but somnolent points of bonds, pension liability and interest rates, and your mind starts going numb.
Before completely zoning out, however, ask about his first campaign, the one for vice president at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Ill.
His buddy Dave Jones, who grew up to be California insurance commissioner, was at the top of the ticket. Neal Sternecky, who gained fame in cartooning by reviving Pogo, drew campaign posters. One depicts a campaign worker-gorilla strong-arming a banana in a prospective voter’s mouth, very Chicago.
In 1979, a Chicago disc jockey had made news by burning disco records between games of a White Sox-Tigers doubleheader at Comiskey Park. Jones and Chiang, learning young that there’s nothing new in politics, capitalized on the prank by promising to rid the high school jukebox of tunes like “Shake Your Booty.”
They swept to victory on the anti-”Boogie Oogie Oogie” platform. Though Chiang confides he kind of liked disco, a promise is a promise. And although the principal accused them of setting back the cause of student government, the Jones-Chiang ticket followed through on the pledge.
It’s serendipity, but only partly, that 36 years later, the running mates from suburban Chicago hold statewide office in California. Jones married a Californian. Chiang settled in Los Angeles after law school in part because California is an accepting place.
“We are what America will be,” Chiang said.
Last week, Chiang announced his candidacy for governor. His will be a face in what surely will be a crowded field in 2018. Based on money and activity, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom would seem to be the front-runner.
Newsom has $8 million-plus in the bank to Chiang’s $3.3 million, and the Lite Guv will get attention this fall if his initiatives to legalize marijuana and restrict the sale of ammunition make it onto the ballot.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would have Southern California support if he jumps in. Billionaire Tom Steyer and former Controller Steve Westly, of eBay and venture capitalist wealth, will have more than enough money if they run. There will be others, perhaps including a Republican to be named later.
Don’t count out Chiang. Asian voters have shown a propensity to support Asian candidates, and a base of 10 percent of the electorate would be a good start. In 2014, Chiang received more votes than any statewide candidate other than Gov. Jerry Brown, 4.17 million, to Newsom’s 4.11 million.
“Political insiders underestimate John at their peril,” said Jones, who is “all-in” for his high school pal.
Handicapping what might happen two years from now is pointless. But wanting to understand why a seemingly rational guy thinks he could become the next governor, I asked Chiang a little bit about himself. It’s a story of aspirations and of incalculable pain.
His mother would insist he care for his younger siblings, including Joyce, eight years his junior. He recalls trying to stop a boy from beating his younger brother, and rocks thrown at the family home in Palos Park.
“You’re 7 and you’re wondering why people don’t like you,” he said. “Where I grew up, I loved it. We had great friends. We also had racial animosity.”
He and Jones met in their freshman year at Sandburg High. Jones described himself as a band nerd who played trombone, and said Chiang was friends with many kids. Chiang played football, though Jones recalls he wasn’t much larger than the pigskin. Jones also calls his friend “whip smart.”
They were on the debate team together, and Jones would do his homework at Chiang’s home. Jones still feels beads of sweat when he thinks about Chiang’s mother’s stern insistence that they study and not horse around.
Chiang’s routine was to go come home after school, play piano for an hour, watch Walter Cronkite, eat family dinner, and study. For five or six hours. Chiang’s parents wouldn’t watch him play Little League games or football. But his mother would watch him at his “mathlete” competition.
“Mom, this is just strange,” he remembers telling her.
The running mates went their separate ways after high school but kept in touch, entering politics at different ends of California. Jones began as a Sacramento city councilman and assemblyman, and Chiang, a tax attorney, won a Board of Equalization seat in 1998.
Chiang was riding high when he was took the oath of office in January 1999. And then sister Joyce went missing. She was 28, and working as a lawyer for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C. Her remains were found three months later on the banks of the Potomac. After initially theorizing that she had taken her own life – the family never believed it – authorities concluded she was murdered. Chiang has been told the murderers are in prison on other charges.
Her death changed him by giving him more of a sense of urgency. “I will return to dust. You just want to use this life to do some good. People are going to forget me. So you just try to make people’s lives a little better.”
Perhaps his candidacy will take off. Maybe it will fall flat. He’ll need to raise huge sums, campaign hard and promise more than ridding jukeboxes of “Shake Your Booty,” though that’d be a start.