By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Nothing up to this point in Fong's career suggested that he was destined to become a fast-rising political star. He had worked on his mother's campaigns, including her abortive bid to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate. But if he had an inclination to make his own run for elective office, he kept it to himself.
All that changed in 1988 when Fong left his mother's party and declared himself a Republican. He became, overnight, a hot political commodity in a GOP that was eager to build bridges to the Asian-American community and shake its image as a party of white men only. Through associates in his law firm, Fong was introduced to local GOP activists who in turn brought Fong to Washington, where he was squired around to party leaders including Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp. There were receptions in his honor, photo-ops with conservative leading lights. Between his ethnicity, his resume and his mother's political legacy, Fong had the makings of a candidate, and in 1989, then-gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson asked Fong to join the ticket and run for state controller, clearing the field of primary challengers for him.
Fong's crushing defeat in that race (to Gray Davis) did little to slow his rapid ascent. Governor Wilson appointed him to the State Board of Equalization, and other political plums came his way. He was selected as a speaker at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston and appointed to Gingrich's National Strategies Conference, a high-profile policy-setting group. "He was our token Asian," says one longtime GOP activist approvingly. Reportedly "bored" with his job at the Board of Equalization, Fong decided to run for treasurer, and Wilson again helped clear the field for him. Within months of taking that office, Fong began plotting his run for Senate.
"I call him the accidental candidate," says one prominent Chinese-American attorney who has supported Fong in the past but is skeptical of his qualifications for the Senate. "Matt was in the right place at the right time." That sentiment is shared, privately, by others in the Chinese-American community who have followed Fong's smooth rise on the GOP affirmative-action track, even as he is viewed as the best hope for greater representation for that long-overlooked community.
Which is not to say that Fong is as light a weight as Michael Huffington or the many other lesser lights who have declared themselves for U.S. Senate. True to form, Fong put together a solid if unspectacular record as treasurer. He sold Wall Street on the message that California recovery merited an increase in the state's credit rating - not a terribly hard sell considering that the state was in fact recovering. And he used the office's power to issue tax credits to boost, however modestly, money available for students loans, affordable housing and inner-city economic development.
The one standout of his tenure as California's chief financial officer has been Fong's role in Pacific Rim investment issues. Organizing a series of investment conferences and junkets to the Far East, he "got the pension-fund managers to start thinking about equities markets in a global way," says Grover McKean, a former deputy treasurer under Jesse Unruh, and a Democrat who supports Fong. That thinking translated into an $800 million commitment to Pacific Rim investment. Not coincidentally, many of the Wall Street players who participated in Fong's trade missions have become campaign contributors.
Of course, the thinking about equities markets in a global sense has changed dramatically in recent months, as one Asian economy after another has snapped to the whiplash of speculative capital flows, and the received wisdom of a Pacific Century built on transnational capital has come in for some serious re-evaluation. But Fong is, for a politician, unusually engaged and well-versed in issues like the role of the International Monetary Fund in economic development; the Senate, with its large foreign-policy portfolio, would make an ideal platform for his voice. The problem for anyone who tries to take Fong seriously as senator material is that as a candidate he doesn't talk about these issues. "I used to talk about it all the time, but most people aren't interested," says Fong, showing a marked fealty to what his campaign advisers are telling him. And besides, calling attention to Fong's trailblazing in the volatile, stormy world of Pacific Rim trade and investment doesn't exactly square with his campaign packaging as a "steady hand on the tiller." Which leaves us with Fong, the un-Boxer.
Since hitting the airwaves last month, the Boxer campaign has been trying to color in Fong's nebulously favorable public image with the hues of doom-and-gloom Republicanism. "When you are an incumbent and not in tremendous shape, your job is to make the challenger an even less-attractive alternative," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow. "It becomes incumbent on the incumbent to run a negative campaign." Thus we have seen ads portraying Fong as anti-choice, Fong as anti-gun control, Fong as anti-environment and overall, Fong as extremist. In truth, Fong has never shown much interest one way or another in these hot-button issues - his pollster, Steve Kinney, says Fong would be happy if he were never asked about abortion again - and his social-issue politics are basically nonideological.