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Not Enough “We”, Too Much “Me”–A Conversation with John Chiang on the Model Majority Podcast


John Chiang at MLK Parade
John Chiang at the Annual Kingdom Day Parade in Los Angeles to honor Martin Luther King. Photo via Facebook

By Kevin Xu
Model Majority Podcast

In a recent episode of the Model Majority Podcast (@modelmajorityp), its co-host Kevin Xu (@Kevinsxu) interviewed John Chiang (@JohnChiangCA), California’s State Treasurer and candidate for governor about, his family’s stories facing racial discrimination in the 1960s, his track record doing some of the “sexiest” jobs in California state government, why he’s running for governor, and his favorite comfort food on the campaign trail.

A transcript (edited for clarity) of their conversation is below. Click HERE to listen to the full episode.


KEVIN: Alright everybody, on this very first episode of 2018, we are honored and delighted to be joined by the Treasurer of California and also candidate for governor John Chiang on the Model Majority Podcast. Treasurer Chiang, thank you so much for joining us today.

TREASURER CHIANG: Kevin, Happy 2018, what did you do on New Year’s Day?


KEVIN: Oh my god. I was being an old person essentially with my wife that’s typically our New Year’s plan. No countdown. We passed out on like 10:30.



KEVIN: Yeah, very boring, very boring, but restful. So before we dive into some of our heavy duty topics, I love to get started with your personal story. So could you share with our audience kind of where did you grow up and how did you grow up?.

TREASURER CHIANG: Sure, so it’s the good old American story. I am the oldest child of immigrant parents, who came to America in my parents’ case in the 1950s. Many before us, as did my family, struggled. My dad when he came to this country brought three shirts, two pairs of pants, and about a hundred dollars in his pocket. America has incredible opportunity because of the opportunity and access to education. So my dad eventually got a Ph.D. My mom made similar sacrifices, learned her English, went to a junior college. They eventually ended up in New York and I was their first child. When I was young, we moved to suburban Chicago after a short stint in New Jersey, and I grew up from age 6 to until I went off to college in suburban Chicago.


KEVIN: Oh wow. Were there are a lot of Asian families back then in suburban Chicago? I’m curious.

TREASURER CHIANG: In the 1960s, no. So we were, in our community, we were the first Asian American family and it was hard! It was truthfully a little tough. So we faced discrimination. There was a lot of ignorance. There was a lot of intolerance. There was a lot of meanness. We had ugly racial epithets painted on our garage to say “go home” or say “chink”, “jap”, “gook”. Sometimes it just makes you laugh in a perverse way about the ignorance that you had to deal with. We were excluded. People handle discrimination in different ways. Sometimes I would get into physical fights. People would pick on my baby brother or my sister, and I would stand up and fight. You wish you could resolve that peacefully, but when people are taunting and other things, and they’re going to push you around sometimes you know, back then and you draw the line that you would stand your ground. My mom is very Catholic and my mom believed you know, and I try to, to find the goodness in others. And the great thing is most of the people are really really good people. They identify when you identify they share common hopes and aspirations, that you are good people, then people come around. So when my mom eventually left Illinois and moved to California, she left a lot of friends. 99 percent of the people by the time I got to high school were incredibly nice. You had a few that were you know still throwing out the taunts and other things. But hopefully that’s a model for our future. We face incredible division today, and we have to understand we’re better together.

John Chiang
Photo from John Chiang for Governor


KEVIN: Absolutely. I mean having had that growing up history I’m sure there’s a lot that you are thinking about as you’re viewing what’s happening today in our country. But I will get into that a little bit later. To track your career, so you started out your career actually as a tax specialist I believe at the IRS. This is right after you got your law degree from Georgetown. I’m curious: why did you make that choice given all the options that were probably in front of you at that point.

TREASURER CHIANG: Yeah, well I didn’t make my top option. My NFL career didn’t pan out.


KEVIN: That’s too bad. Haha.

TREASURER CHIANG: I played high school football and I loved it. But boy, did I get pounded. Luckily, I didn’t have concussions so my brain worked so I went to work at the Internal Revenue Service. It was technically and intellectually very interesting. Really learned a lot. But you know I wasn’t there that long. I wanted to be something where I thought I could be emotionally connected to individuals. Public service for me is just incredibly inspiring. I wake up every day and think, Wow, I get paid to try to help people/ This is what I love doing. When I was at the Internal Revenue Service, I would volunteer after hours with nonprofit activities, just to be with people and try to improve and make our communities and the world a better place.


KEVIN: So at what point did you kind of get the political bug or what got you interested in electoral politics, like actually running for office?

TREASURER CHIANG: So I was interested not necessarily in running for office, but part of the struggle that my family faced…my mom was always searching for somebody who would listen to us, somebody who would care for us, somebody who understood what our daily struggles were. And so there was the city council member and he was that one person, who gave my mom reassurance that he cared, that he was going to try to help us work through the, you know, the hostility that we we faced. And so for me that was inspiring. When I was 11 years old, one summer, I was just so engrossed in the Watergate hearings and the world that I saw on TV was very different. I saw Senator Inouye, you had this veteran, who was a hero, who you know lost part of his limb, somebody who is Japanese American and you had Japanese Americans were interned. You had prominent African American female members of Congress, and that was a world that I was unfamiliar with. And I think, wow these people are people who are making the laws of this country. When you were 11, you don’t have a well-grounded understanding of how Washington, DC works. But I was just watching something that was just incredibly fascinating.


KEVIN: Are you drawing any parallels at all to what is happening today? Just to jump super ahead.

TREASURER CHIANG: I wasn’t trying to draw that but obviously, history repeats itself. And we need for people to understand that their world views are relevant, but they have to be open to listening to the hearts and minds and thoughts of other individuals, so that we can try to come together to create a democracy that creates a better future for all Americans.


KEVIN: Absolutely. So because of that commitment to public service you held a series of pretty consequential, though not necessarily well-known positions here in California’s state government, like the Board of Equalization, the State Controller, and of course now you’re the State Treasurer. Could you give our listeners a primer on what these positions actually are and of course what did you do there as well? Maybe starting with the Board of Equalization.

TREASURER CHIANG: Well, I run for the offices that other people just find incredibly sexy. Everybody wants to be part of the tax administration and tax collection authority for the state of California. That’s what the Board of Equalization is. So equalization is a property tax term, and it was created way back in the 1870s as statutory authority. I know people don’t care about statutory or constitutional authority about a decade later. But it’s important. We know that we have to pay for the things that we dream about: education, health care, building more housing so that you don’t have people out on the streets starving having you know facing the inclement weather. So it’s important that you have good tax administration. I’ve always tried to bring a different vision. I understand how taxes can be scary. They can be intimidating for many folks. It’s intimidating when I went to work at the Internal Revenue Service, so it gave me a personal sensitivity that I try to change, when I served as a public official. I believe I was first elected official to do free income tax. Too many Californians make tax mistakes. Many of them don’t know of certain tax credit, and they’re leaving money that could be in their pocket. And so I wanted us to be transparent. I wanted to make sure that we’re accessible, so not only free income taxes. I know that so many immigrants and others have big dreams, and they’re starting to own businesses and oftentimes they also don’t have enough money to get the accountants and tax lawyers to provide them with the best financial assistance, the best financial education. So I created various tax seminars, did them in different languages, because that we know that this state is  incredibly diverse. We have people who have dreams to come from every continent on this planet. And I wanted to make sure that we assisted them. We know that many people have deep faith, and so I created seminars for churches. And I also created seminars for nonprofit organizations. Good people who are trying to improve the lot of each other oftentimes without a lot of money, not enough resources. So let’s go out with my philosophy and help the organizations, the businesses, the individuals, who really change and have a different sight, a better sight, for residents of communities throughout the state of California.


KEVIN: Right. And what about your role as the state controller?

TREASURER CHIANG: Well, as the state controller, I’m the state’s chief fiscal officer.


KEVIN: So, that’s like the CFO of California?

TREASURER CHIANG: The chief fiscal officer, so not actually the Chief Financial Officer, because it doesn’t have again technically the Treasury functions, which was later in my current position, the Treasurer. But as the state’s controller, you have a lot of responsibilities. I think most people knew me, because of my signature on their tax refund. We used to do 44 million disbursements each year. People also saw these checks, because I fixed a program that were broken, it was called Unclaimed Property. I want to encourage everybody to go to claimit.ca.gov. That’s where you can check if the state is holding money for you, that came from maybe a previous landlord or utility company or your financial institution or bank. So when I got into office, the program was broken. I promised the judge we would fix it through the strong efforts that former state senator Mike Machado. We introduced legislations, and today we have one of the most advanced, if not the most advanced, Unclaimed Property program in the United States of America. And so I returned 3.1 billion dollars, but there’s more money, so Betty Yee, the current controller is operating that system. Please please please, go look at it! We really want to get that money back to you. Other functions: I was most successful auditor. You know, people work hard. They turn their money over to government. They want their kids to get a great education. They want good public safety. They want to make sure that we don’t have a public health crisis. They want to make sure that we have access to water. And so I wanted to make sure that when people are using that money, that we can build trust. So that’s why I really focused on making sure that every hard-earned taxpayer dollar was better spent. So I did 9.5 billion dollars of audit findings. Many people have heard of that crisis we had in California, in the City of Bell. where they had a few administrators engaged in illegal and improper practices, gorging money. L.A. Times did a great job investigating or identifying that outrageous salary. I went in and audited them and tried to put cities like Bell on a better future pathway, because you want to live in a community that’s financially healthy, so that it can pay for parks, where kids can play soccer or ride on slides. You want to have good police and firefighters services. You want to have a library where you can go after school and play with a computer or hear some stories told. And so that’s why you know I want to make sure that we got the dollars being spent correctly, so that people can have the lives they dreamed of.

John Chiang with Ed Lee
John Chiang with the late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Photo via Facebook


KEVIN: Absolutely. I mean it’s so refreshing, Treasurer, to actually hear your record in these positions, because you know most of the politicians that you interact with or you get to talk to are just the ones you see on TV. Besides just being controversial and melodramatic, they always talk about how to spend our money, like our hard-earned taxpayer money. You’re one of the few people who will think about, number one, how to spend them wisely, but also if they are just there, how can people just get them back, which is so refreshing to know, because one of the things that I get frustrated by, in this Trump era, as a taxpayer is that we’re just paying for politicians apparently to be controversial or to just trend on Twitter. It doesn’t look like anyone’s doing any work. And is that why you wanted to be governor then? Now you already have a big job as the state treasurer, but you’re still running all over the state to campaign. What is your reason to want to be governor?

TREASURER CHIANG: Yes, I feel incredibly blessed every day to get to serve and help others. I only get to serve in this position because those before me sacrificed, worked really hard to give me,, an immigrant’s child an opportunity to live his dreams. I am blessed with six of God’s children. They are diverse–Latina, Asian, biracial. And I want to make sure that their dreams are easily within their capacity. They have to work hard, but I want to build a California where we provide a world class education to every child. I want to make sure that we overcome this housing crisis, which is leading so many California families into poverty. I want people to be creative. We are the innovation economy. So whether it’s Hollywood, whether it’s technology, whether it’s healthcare, building that. So the governor’s office is the natural next step. I’ve been doing this. I I helped finance job creation in the state of California. I helped finance children’s hospitals. We work on mental health issues. Where others have left the issue of housing behind, we’re consistently working on housing. Just as an example, in the Treasurer’s office, in just a couple of years, I have increased the building of affordable housing, new and rehabilitated, by 83 percent. We know we have a long long way to go. We are one and a half million units short. We’re projected to be over 3 million units short. But you know I want, at the end of the day, people aren’t going to remember the name, but they will live the life that you build for them. So I want to build the very best life for them.


KEVIN: And now that you are spending a lot of time on the road, campaigning not just in counties where it’s Democratic strongholds, but also places in the Central Valley. And of course California is a pretty big and diverse state. I’m curious, what has been some interesting or new things you’ve learned from your interactions with voters from different backgrounds?

TREASURER CHIANG: Love. How much people love their communities, love their opportunities. So whether it’s you know visiting somebody in Marin County, who loves hiking, you know they do it frequently, hiking with their neighbors, to going to Jackson, California, and former workers rebuilding the foundry. They used to help America get through the World War. People who are just passionate about vulnerable children, who early on in life come from financially challenged families, who are hunger starved or a housing starved to make sure that these young Californians will get access to a place where they can get care and they can get food. It is absolutely inspiring. And so that’s what I was talking about earlier, why I’m running for governor. I want them to know that they have somebody who’s passionate about their dreams. Somebody has to, just as you pointed out, doesn’t just talk about it or just tweet about it, but someone who has a record. Somebody you can trust by virtue of the example and hard work, and is doing it today. I’m not a Johnny-come-lately to these issues. I’ve been doing this my whole time in elective office. I even volunteered while I was a private citizen, on the advisory council for Big Sisters of Los Angeles, coaching kids in basketball, because that’s just part of who I am at my core.


KEVIN: Right. And another thing that, during your campaign, you waded into recently in the midst of the public discussion about sexual harassment and assault of women in our workplaces. You wrote a Medium piece titled “It’s not enough to talk about toxic masculinity,” which isn’t just a declaration of your position on this issue, but also there’s a huge list of real policy proposals that you would enact as governor, if you were elected, to fix this problem. And what motivated you to write this piece and really jump right into this pretty controversial culture issue that we’re facing in our country?.

TREASURER CHIANG: Because it’s part of our culture unfortunately. The intimidation, discrimination. I mentioned our family’s stories facing discrimination. Sexual harassment, you see these places especially in the highest places, but it happens throughout, the abuse of privilege and the arrogance of power. People think they are above it all. They don’t have to be held to standards, because they reached a position or they use their wealth or they used their connections. We need to stop that. People need to be respected. They need to be valued. We need to bring integrity to the system. And part of that integrity is: you can’t just talk. We have too much talking, using social media. Real change comes from real proposals and action on those proposals. And that’s why I put out a concrete plan, because we need to make sure that all of us are thinking about this, that we’re going to come up and get individuals, institutions, businesses invested in making sure that we change the culture which we live in.


John Chiang
Photo from John Chiang for Governor

KEVIN: Right. Now I want to wrap up with one more lighthearted, fun question. Campaigning is very hard work. My cohost and I, we met working on the Obama campaign together back in 2008, and you know long days, many many events, and your habits, your good habits, kind of slip, once in a while but everyone has their favorite campaign comfort food. So I was wondering, what is your current campaign trail comfort food right now?

TREASURER CHIANG: It’s not my comfort food. but what we have in the car that I most often eat is almonds and trail mix. But it doesn’t have that level of satisfaction, right?


KEVIN: That sounds incredibly healthy.

TREASURER CHIANG: Yeah well…and that’s why I said, I don’t particularly enjoy it. I enjoy the almonds, the trail mixes, depending on the mix, sometimes it’s a home run, and sometimes you are thinking, oh what a waste!  But on Tuesdays, when I’m in Southern California, I love to go to taco places and what I really love also is that Popeye’s Fried Chicken on Tuesday. But I can’t eat that much fried, and I need to work out more to contain those calories. When I’m in Sacramento, in the northern region, especially in Sacramento where I spent a lot of time as Treasurer, I like chicken teriyaki. They have this great place where I go for a chicken teriyaki bowl.


KEVIN: Nice, nice. That’s probably like the healthiest candidate habit I’ve heard so far yet on the campaign trail, but it’s good.

TREASURER CHIANG: It’s sort of a halfer. Sometimes I like the white rice better, but when I know I’ve had too many chicken teriyaki bowls, I have to, I have to mix it up with that brown rice.


KEVIN: That’s right. Or some quinoa or something, to make a little bit more acceptable. Well, Treasurer Chiang, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. I was wondering, where can people find more about your campaign and get involved if they want to? Where should they go?

TREASURER CHIANG: johnchiang.com. Please join us. This is a campaign where we want everybody, but unfortunately the signal they sent out of Washington D.C. is too much about “me”. We know that when we are together with the “we,” we can accomplish anything.


KEVIN: Absolutely. Well thank you again for joining us. People, make sure if you are curious about John’s campaign go to johnchiang.com and of course follow him on Twitter as well. And sir, good luck on the campaign trail, and we look forward to talking to you again in the future.

TREASURER CHIANG: Oh, thank you so much Kevin, and great success to you.

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