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Safe bet or spontaneity? Governor’s race could be a referendum on presidential politics

May 19, 2016

The theory is that after this raucous presidential election runs its depressing course, voters will be sick of polarizing politicians.

Disgusted Californians will then embrace a refreshingly mild-mannered policy wonk as they select a replacement for termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018.

That’s the conjecture of people who see a path to the governor’s office for Democratic state Treasurer John Chiang, 53, who officially announced his candidacy Tuesday.

Voters will welcome a break from the likes of Donald Trump, surely the most ill-mannered major presidential candidate ever. They’ll also savor a respite from the controversy and cynicism that constantly encircles Hillary Clinton.

One of the two almost certainly will be elected president and have the White House in turmoil as Californians choose their next governor. The pendulum of public mood may be swinging.

That’s one theory.

There’s also another: that voters have crossed the line into a broadcast blabber, social media world that craves instant gratification and excitement. Their attention spans are measured in nanoseconds. And they thrive on entertainment.

If so, Chiang — pronounced “Chung” — will not be their candidate.

“He’s not bombastic, that’s for sure,” says Parke Skelton (no relation of mine), who is Chiang’s campaign consultant.

“But he does engender a deep loyalty and respect among people. A lot of it comes from how he treats people.”

He’s also thoughtful and knowledgeable about issues, especially money stuff, having been a member of the tax-administering state Board of Equalization for 10 years, state controller for eight and treasurer since January 2015.

Consultant David Townsend, who specializes in electing Democratic moderates and isn’t involved in the gubernatorial race, thinks Chiang has a good shot.

“The person who becomes the next governor will be the one who can convince the voters that he or she will continue the strong fiscal responsibility of Jerry Brown,” Townsend says.

The only other candidate so far is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, 48, the former San Francisco mayor who attained national attention in 2004 by ordering city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples when it was still illegal. That bold action led the way to gay marriages becoming legal across the country.

Newsom was elected lieutenant governor and disappeared, as virtually all gubernatorial subs do. This year he is re-raising his profile by strongly backing two ballot initiatives: one to impose even tighter gun controls in California, and the second to legalize marijuana use for any adult who just wants to get high.

We’ll see how that works out politically. He’s on the right side of gun control, but it’s sure to anger single-issue firearms fanatics. The weed strategy may earn him the enthusiastic support of potheads, but many voters will be scratching their heads wondering about his priorities.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 63, an ex-Assembly speaker, is toying with running. But he also toyed with entering the U.S. Senate race this year and didn’t.

No L.A. mayor — former or current — has ever been elected governor. But that’s not set in stone. It just means the odds are getting better that one will be.

Also, Villaraigosa presumably would draw strong support from the growing Latino electorate.

But he and Newsom are burdened with personal baggage that would be reopened for everyone to gawk at. Odds on Villaraigosa running are 50-50.

If he doesn’t, there’s an opening for Secretary of State Alex Padilla, 43, a former state senator and Los Angeles City Council member. He’d probably prefer to try for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat if she retires. She hasn’t decided. She’ll be 85 in 2018.

Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, 58, a former hedge fund manager whose passion is fighting global warming, also has considered running for governor. But California voters haven’t been kind to mega-rich candidates who have never held public office and try to start at the top.

Anyway, I’m told Steyer likes Chiang’s idea of developing “green” infrastructure, such as wind farms, clean manufacturing technology and clean air vehicles. It’s very unlikely that Steyer will run.

Ditto for former state controller and EBay executive Steve Westly, 59, who spent $35 million of his own money in a failed gubernatorial bid in 2006. There’s no visible winning path for him.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, 45, could run except for a timing problem: He’ll presumably be seeking reelection when he’d need to gear up for a gubernatorial race. So the best bet for him is the safer one: reelection.

There are also two Republicans frequently mentioned: Mayors Kevin Faulconer of San Diego and Ashley Swearengin of Fresno. But the GOP hasn’t won a statewide election in 10 years. And its prospects will be even dimmer after Trump finishes tarnishing the party.

Chiang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, can count on strong support from voters of Asian ancestry, who comprise about 10% of the electorate.

I asked him about his priorities as governor. He replied education, more efficient spending, reducing public debt, private job creation, streamlining regulations, affordable housing, prevention-focused healthcare and water. A lot of things business could get behind.

He’s skeptical of how Brown’s bullet train can be paid for.

Chiang could easily run for reelection as treasurer.

“He could spend his whole life shuttling around these down-ticket offices,” says his strategist, Skelton. “But it’s up or out. That’s not the safe mode. But he’s willing to risk his political career.”

Chiang hopes Californians will be looking for a safe, non-risky governor.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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