Friday, April 27, 2007

John Chiang: The First Asian Pacific American California State Controller

By Edward Tom

Elected in November 2006, John Chiang is California’s first Asian Pacific American State Controller. He serves as the state’s Chief Financial Officer and presides over the Franchise Tax Board. Chiang is a member of the state’s twelve constitutional officers making him one of the highest ranking APA officeholders in the United States. As a board member of California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), he helps administer a combined portfolio of $300 billion. In all, he serves on 76 state boards and commissions with duties ranging from building new hospitals to protecting California’s coastline.

As the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Chiang born in New York during the 1960s when racial and community divisions were at their peak. Challenging these issues were two of Chiang’s heroes—Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy—who helped inspire his interest in public service.

After graduating with honors, holding a degree in Finance from the University of South Florida and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, he set off to Los Angeles in 1987 to work as a tax law specialist for the IRS. Chiang later went on to work as an attorney for then State Controller, Gray Davis, and as staff member to Senator Barbara Boxer, Congressman Mel Levine, State Controller Candidate, Don Perata, and Kathleen Brown during her race for Governor.

While serving as the Chief of Staff for Brad Sherman, a member of the California State Board of Equalization, Chiang assumed the role of acting Board Member when Sherman was elected to Congress. In 1998, he succeeded in his own campaign to represent the 4th Equalization District (comprised of 8.5 million residents in Los Angeles County) and was elected to a second term in 2002.

Recently OCA was able to catch up with John Chiang in an on-phone interview.

OCA: Can you tell me about how you decided to enter politics?

CHIANG: I was working for the Internal Revenue Service after I graduated from the Georgetown University law center. I had an interest in public policy, not necessarily politics. When I went to Washington DC I worked for a couple members of congress. I thought it was a great medium and arena to affect public policy change. I thought it was a positive experience, and when I came out to California and was given an opportunity to engage in public policy outside of just the tax arena, I took the chance.

OCA: How can we encourage more Asian Pacific Americans to vote?

There are multiple dynamics that will secure or encourage political participation of Asian Pacific Americans.

First there is the winner strategy. Everyone likes a winner; as APA become more successful politically I think a lot more people will be attracted to the process. They will see APA and others making effective changes, and they will understand that they too have the same opportunities. The barriers to entry will be significantly reduced, which has been a major impediment for a lot of individuals in emerging communities not just the APA community. How do we get into the middle of the process? How do we have our opinions valued? How do we have our work incorporated into the mainstream, and as you see new faces, as you hear new voices, I think people will understand that it’ll be easier.

Secondly, now coming down the bend, I think the APA community might be forced to participate on a civil rights and equality issue as we have a change in international finance and economics. As we witnessed a couple years ago when the Chinese government wanted to purchase a United States oil company, there was a significant backlash. I think people are not used to other governments having the same economic wherewithal as we do here in the US. I think that creates a potential for enormous backlash against APAs as this greed and crime rises. I think the only way for us to maintain our vital participation and our civic democracy is to build a safe political infrastructure by voting, running for offices, and campaigning for candidates who are sensitive to human rights and civil rights issues of APAs.

OCA: As a role model for young APAs, what advice can you give to those who aspire to enter politics?

Do what you love! You can enter into the public policy arena in so many ways. It’s not just running for office, it’s running for commission. It’s voter participation. Do what you love. People think there’s a set formula. A lot of people unfortunately are jaded. Everybody is unique, they can make an individual contribution, so understand how the process works and add your own individual qualities and flavor to your political participation.

OCA: What issues, in the political or civic arena, do you think APAs need to focus more attention on?

First they need to be educated about the public policy and political process, and how they can be efficient and effective in enhancing their power. I think many people are scared or frankly detest the notion of power; Power is positive if used correctly It is, in essence, leverage allowing you to communicate and work with individuals who can promote a role of law that creates opportunity for all Californian and American residents . If you are absent from that process, then the process works against you. Whether it’s individuals or organizations, they need to work together to build a relationship with the commissioners and elected officials who make the decisions and institute a process through which they can be decision makers themselves.

OCA: What is one of the most challenging situations that you’ve faced in your life?

At a personal level, the most challenging was the loss of my sister. Nobody expects to lose a loved one especially my sister in her late twenties. When people are dear to you, you expect them to have another 40 or 50 years.

Externally, we faced extraordinary discrimination when I was a young child. In essence it’s dealing with people’s lack of cultural understanding. You can call it ignorance to be treated differently based on external features that aren’t necessarily well grounded. What makes people more insightful, stronger, and better able to communicate is not always through circumstances that are necessarily easy. What is important is how you use that life experience and what better opportunities you create through your work.

OCA: What is the most important task that you would like to achieve as State Controller of California?

The most important task that I have now is trying to create stable fiscal health for California’s economy. We are entering a period of tremendous struggle. The revenue numbers aren’t matching earlier projections, so we have to make sure we have a healthy fiscal situation so that we don’t jeopardize students in education, seniors or disabled that need health care, or others in need. In California’s underground economy, millions of tax dollars are not collected because of illegal activity or ignorance. To manage these situations, we need to budget properly to enhance opportunities for maximizing revenue and bring the best fiscal practices to this state.

OCA: Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

The organization of Chinese Americans has an extraordinary opportunity in our growing diversity to leave a major footprint in the financial, political, and social well being of the United States. They’ve shown a growing measure of advocacy on some of the recent federal appointments and major issues. I think if the membership and those outside the community will support the work of OCA, then we can take the next giant stride to progress but, it won’t come easily. The organization and its supporters will need to engage in significant efforts so that we can keep up with the challenging times ahead.

For more information on John Chiang and the State Controller’s Office please visit their website at

No comments: