OAKLAND — Being California's Controller doesn't automatically confer rock-star status.
The state's top fiscal officer doesn't often get the spotlight of a governor (whether or not that governor happens to be an international movie star), or the hard-bitten crime-fighting air of an Attorney General.
Yet John Chiang seemed to be riding his recent wave of popularity with ease Thursday, receiving a hero's welcome from East Bay Democrats just five days before he'll speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
His convention speaking slot was already under discussion before he rocketed into the headlines, and into his fellow Democrats' hearts, by refusing to go along with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's executive order to slash the pay of about 150,000 state workers to minimum wage in the absence of a state budget.
The draft of the speech he has sent to convention organizers isn't about that. He's speaking on a day when the theme will be "Renewing America's Promise," featuring voices of those who share presumptive nominee Barack Obama's concerns and support his plans "to grow the economy, create jobs, restore fairness, and expand opportunity."
Chiang said organizers were more interested in his own biography — a son of Taiwanese immigrants who worked his way up through the ranks of government and Democratic politics to become one of the highest-ranking Asian-American officeholders in the continental United States —
The speech probably won't include the phrase "minimum wage," he said, but his legal battle with the governor won't be far from his mind.
"I don't get to sign the bills, I didn't run for governor, and he didn't run for controller," Chiang told about 25 members of the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club in a lunchtime meeting Thursday in Oakland's Jack London Square. "He ought to let me do my job."
"I'm not challenging Arnold, he's challenging me on my turf."
Chiang said his office had advised Schwarzenegger that cutting state workers' pay would send the wrong message to Wall Street about California's financial security; would open the state to legal difficulties; and was bad policy in that it shows no compassion to people who work hard for the state's betterment.
"We have to be smarter and better," he said, and avoid "the politics of division and exclusion."
Chiang said he understands the governor's frustration, and agrees the budget stalemate has gone on too long; legislative leaders should have begun close negotiations months earlier to keep Californians from getting caught in the partisan crossfire, he said. But for now, he said, there's no backing down: "I would be glad to join the governor's team if and when he decides to do the right thing."
A Sacramento County Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear the pay dispute Sept. 12. Chiang said he believes it is the wording of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act that's at issue, so he's trying to get the matter moved to federal court.
In the meantime, Chiang is riding high. As club vice-chairwoman Meredith Brown put it at Thursday's event: "This is the man who stood up to the man, so he's our man."