SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Positioning himself as the most economically savvy of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates, State Treasurer John Chiang said he isn’t afraid to take tough and unpopular stances to bring California back on sound fiscal footing, even if that means raising taxes.
“We’ll put everything on the table,” Chiang said at a forum at the University of San Francisco Thursday evening, referring to a potential tax hike.
Chiang said he wants to pour more money into education; making early childhood education a priority, but also putting a freeze on state university tuition until at least 2019. Chiang said he believes education in California is underfunded in the billions.
Chiang said he would first look to collecting unpaid taxes and uncovering tax shelters, reprioritization in the state budget and cutting waste in government.
“Part of it is how do you use the state’s resources more efficiently, but also how do we find more revenues?” he said.
If it comes down to it, he said he wouldn’t rule out raising taxes or reexamining Proposition 13, a law passed by voters in 1978 that froze property taxes at the 1976 assessed level and increased property taxes no more than two percent per year as long as the property was not sold.
“I think there have been abuses to Prop 13,” Chiang said. “I’d go back and say we need to fix that.”
To address rampant homelessness and the high cost of housing in California, Chiang said he’ll work aggressively to build more housing and possibly rollback rent control.
“You see people not engaging in housing and that’s why we have a housing crisis in this city and throughout California,” he said.
“I want to make sure we don’t dissuade people from building additional housing,” Chiang said. “With rent control, you protect the people who are already protected, but I want to make sure we have enough incentives so we can recruit that money in a timely fashion, so they can upgrade and rebuild without creating disincentives. I want to make sure we don’t have the uncontrollable price spikes that we have now.”
Chiang’s appearance is part of a series of five question-and-answer sessions with gubernatorial candidates sponsored by Politico and the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
On Thursday, Chiang also pushed his sexual harassment agenda and addressed opponent Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom’s past indiscretions.
“I’m the only candidate that’s put out a specific plan on how to address sexual harassment,” Chiang said.
When moderator David Siders asked if former San Francisco mayor Newsom abused his power by having an affair with his campaign manager’s wife in mid-2005, Chiang was reticent in his answer.
“The voters will decide that,” he said.
“I’m not talking to the voters,” Siders said. “Are you unwilling to say?”
Again Chiang replied, he’d let the voters decide.
He was also guarded when questioned about some sexual harassment settlement checks he signed while Controller.
“Those agencies were represented by the Attorney General. If people want to question Kamala Harris’ actions as to the defense of the state of California in regards to sexual harassment suits and payments, take it up with the now U.S. Senator on those things. I trusted Kamala Harris and the agencies to come up with the right legal decisions,” Chiang said.
Siders pushed, “Could you not have taken an out of the box stand? Was this something you had to sign?”
Chiang said administratively, he had to follow the law unless it was breached.
Chiang has worked in state government for over two decades, but since he’s largely shunned the spotlight, he’s been somewhat overshadowed in the gubernatorial race by the more splashy, urbane Newsom.
Chiang was born in New York and raised in the suburbs of Chicago; the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He moved to California in 1987, and slowly worked his way through various government agencies, first the Internal Revenue Service, then the Board of Equalization. In 2006, he was elected State Controller, a position he held until he ran successfully for Treasurer in 2014.
In 2008, Chiang took on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he defied orders to dock state worker salaries to minimum wage during a budget impasse.
He may be best known for becoming the most unpopular man in Sacramento when in 2011 he refused to pay legislators until they passed a balanced budget.
Since he announced his candidacy for governor, his numbers have remained middling, with a new poll released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute showing him falling behind. In that poll, Chiang was favored by only six percent of likely voters, just one percent ahead of last pick Delaine Eastin.
At Thursday’s forum, Siders kept it mostly casual; referencing his underdog status and giving Chiang a chance to display his self-effacing sense of humor.
Chiang downplayed the PPIC poll, noting that there’s still plenty of time before the election. “I think we’re making very healthy progress,” he said, pointing to recent endorsements by some labor unions and Congressional representatives Loretta Sanchez and Mark Takano.
Siders asked him about a series of tongue-in-cheek ads that position him as more than a money guy. In a riff on the “the most interesting man in the world” Dos Equis beer ads, Chiang is depicted as “The most accomplished man in the America,” and touted as having returned $3.1 billion in unclaimed funds to Californians during his two terms as Controller.
“Is that what you’re trying to relate here, that you’re also fun?” Siders asked.
“I am fun. I try not to show it in public,” Chiang said. “But people have caught me doing karaoke.”
Siders asked if the Dos Equis ad was his idea. It was not, Chiang said. His staff came up with it.
“That’s not taking a lot of credit for the fun,” Siders joked.
“Well, if you saw me play basketball,” Chiang shot back. He admitted he hasn’t played since an ankle injury kept him off the court, but he’s still a fan, and an active participant in this year’s Politico’s “Playbook Pool,” which he’s already lost.
“I’m happy to tell you, the Playbook Pool is an omen for absolutely nothing,” Siders said.