May 18, 2018 at 7:00 am PDT | by Karen Ocamb
Underdog John Chiang attacks

John Chiang at a Pride event (Photo courtesy John Chiang’s campaign)

Optics. That’s what struck the LGBT community in July 2008 when California State Controller John Chiang seemingly emerged out of nowhere to defy Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during an ugly state budget battle.

Most LGBT politicos knew Chiang as the Board of Equalization numbers nerd who defeated anti-gay Assembly member Tony Strickland for Controller the year before. And while Schwarzenegger told Log Cabin Republicans in April that he opposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, most LGBT people only remembered that the Republican governor had twice vetoed marriage equality bills.

So in what looked like a fiscal showdown between David vs. Goliath, LGBT people pulled for the underdog. Schwarzenegger backed off and Chiang won on behalf of state employees whose paychecks the governor wanted to temporarily roll back to minimum wage. 

Chiang was known to Westside Democrats but few noticed in 1997 when he was appointed to replace Brad Sherman on the Board of Equalization after Sherman was elected to Congress. Sherman taught the LGBT community how important the BOE could be when he challenged the tax-exempt status of rabidly anti-gay Rev. Lou Sheldon’s Traditional Values Coalition.

Chiang was not that confrontational on BOE or as Controller. Rather, he did important nerdy stuff like traveling throughout the state giving seminars explaining tax laws to registered domestic partners—and how to appeal discriminatory cases—and led the rewriting of joint tenancy rules to include domestic partners.

But Chiang made some real dents in curtailing esoteric but significant and largely invisible discrimination as State Treasurer. In 2015, with the backing of the California LGBT Legislative Caucus and Equality California, Chiang pressured the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)— which represents the largest public pension fund in America—to expand the definition of “diversity” on corporate boards to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“CalPERS’ Global Governance Principles provide factors that its internal and external managers are expected to take into account when investing its more than $300 billion in assets,” the Paul Hastings law firm wrote in a report to investors. Chiang also pressured the California State Teachers’ Retirement Fund (“CalSTRS”) to update its Corporate Governance Principles, as well. 

As with Schwarzenegger, Chiang’s pressure worked and substantive change was made, even if it didn’t make flashy headlines. As his gubernatorial ad “Underdog” illustrates, Chiang has worked to turn terror into triumph.

“I don’t remember the first time it happened. But I’ll never forget how painful it was for my family. They threw rocks at our windows. Spray painted our garage and started fights with us on the playground,” Chiang says in the voiceover. “My dad came over from Taiwan in the 1950s with little money to his name. We were the first Asian-American family on our block. We were taunted, ridiculed, but I remember my mom saying we just need to show them that we are good people. I think that’s why I’ve always rooted for the underdog.”

“It was painful to be excluded” as a child, Chiang tells the Los Angeles Blade. “I really like people. I like being around people and to have people just look at you and not give you an opportunity. To have people look at you to engage in action that’s harmful to you. To have people look at you and not view you as a person having value really impacts me to my core.

“So my whole life has been about making sure that we make this world a better place,” Chiang continues. “That we’ve come together to try to understand that everybody is entitled to dignity, respect and has value. We still have extraordinary hostility. We have a president that has taken action inconsistent with those values. But there are so many people today that are passionate, whether it’s about the Muslim ban, whether it’s about standing up to President Trump. So I’m hopeful. This is a tall climb up the proverbial mountain but at the end of the day, I believe we get there for equality.”

But Chiang has an optical problem with his latest campaign ad targeting Antonio Villaraigosa: many view it as a desperate Republican-style attack to get the second spot behind frontrunner Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the June 5 primary. 

“I have great respect for Antonio and I don’t view [the ad] as mean-spirited but I do believe that all elected officials—we all have to stand up for our actions. We all have to be straight-forward.”

Chiang says there were “fiscal issues during [Villaraigosa’s] service” as mayor of Los Angeles. “There were issues on priorities so he has to address those priorities, as all the candidates do.”

But the “Leadership” ad is misleading. “He was called ‘a failure.’ An ‘embarrassment.’ As mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa drove L.A. to the brink of bankruptcy,” the ad says, at one point citing Los Angeles Magazine. “Villaraigosa’s recklessness threatened jobs, the economy, and left no funding to test 7,000 rape kits, putting public safety at risk.”

The LA Magazine citation refers to a very long “open letter” to Villaraigosa by freelance journalist Ed Leibowitz published June 1, 2009.  In it, the author expresses extreme disappointment with the first-term mayor for failing to deliver on campaign promises. It is not an editorial by the magazine’s staff. In fact, Villaraigosa served a second term as mayor, where a number of mistakes were dealt with, according to the LA Times, which endorsed Villaraigosa on May 10. 

Optics. Chiang has been perceived as a man of integrity with a record of fiscal responsibility. But will that now be clouded with this new appearance of negativity?

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