Capitol Alert

John Chiang opens bid for California governor

In an understated – and long-expected – announcement, state Treasurer John Chiang opened his campaign for governor Tuesday, casting himself as a fiscal steward amid a field of higher-profile Democrats.

Chiang, 53, created a campaign account, issued a news release and then said in a tweet, “It’s official.”

Chiang’s candidacy had been expected for months, with the former state controller telling reporters in February he was “almost there.”

He is the second candidate, after Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, to begin raising money for the 2018 election to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former state Controller Steve Westly are widely expected to run, and other potential Democratic candidates include billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Chiang has won three statewide elections, twice for controller and most recently for treasurer. Still, he remains less visible than some of his potential rivals. In an October Field Poll, just 29 percent of registered voters said they were inclined to vote for Chiang, a lower level of support than Newsom, Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In an interview, Chiang sought to distinguish himself in part based on his experience managing state cash during the recession, including the issuance of IOUs, or registered warrants, during a budget impasse in 2009.

“The narrative today about California is probably different than it would have been if I wasn’t the state controller,” Chiang said. “We could have been Puerto Rico. We could have defaulted on debt.”

Chiang also promoted his decisions to publish public employees’ salaries online and to withhold pay from lawmakers amid a budget standoff in 2011.

In the legislative pay dispute, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento later ruled Chiang lacked authority to determine whether a budget approved by the Legislature is balanced.

“I know people have challenged waste, fraud and abuse,” Chiang said. “But it’s real, and a penny saved is a penny earned.”

Within hours of Chiang’s announcement, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, and Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma both said they will run for treasurer in 2018.

Chiang’s announcement was unusually low profile, coming in the midst of a presidential contest and with none of the online videos or public appearances that typically accompany a campaign’s opening.

Chiang, the son of immigrants from Taiwan, asked supporters in an email Tuesday for endorsements and money.

“The first hurdle will be to prove that we can raise the funds needed to be competitive,” he wrote, “so your early support is invaluable.”

Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist who has done work for Steyer in the past but is unaffiliated with any of the gubernatorial campaigns, called Chiang the “biggest sleeper” in the contest.

“If it’s going to be a battle of the liberals between Steyer and Newsom and, to some extent Villaraigosa, then I think there’s room in the race for someone who’s more fiscally conservative,” Maviglio said.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, is a potential candidate. But California is so heavily Democratic that it is possible two Democrats will advance from the primary election to a runoff. If Chiang can secure one of those spots, he could appeal not only to moderate Democrats in the runoff election but also Republicans without a candidate in the race.

Still, Maviglio said, Chiang “needs to step up his game in terms of spark and style. I think, you know, he’s sort of cautious in the way he speaks and approaches issues. There’s a lot of voters who like fire and brimstone. That’s not him.”

Chiang begins the race with money in hand. He ended 2015 with about $3.3 million left over from his last campaign, money he could carry over.

Newsom opened a campaign account more than a year ago and has been steadily raising money since, with more than $8 million on hand.

Newsom spokesman Dan Newman said in an email that he expects “many others will also run, and hopefully we’ll have a robust exchange of ideas, records and visions for the future.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders