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Dan Schnur makes a nonpartisan pitch

SACRAMENTO — Dan Schnur may represent a new trend and the embodiment of California political reform. Then again, he may be just another wannabe officeholder living in fantasy land.

Schnur, 50, a former Republican strategist and spokesman — hack and flack — is running for California secretary of state, or chief elections officer.

What makes this noteworthy is that Schnur — most recently a reformer and educator — is trying to become the first nonpartisan to win a partisan statewide office. He's running as an independent.

Schnur's pitch: "The umpire shouldn't be wearing a Dodgers or a Giants jersey. The chief elections officer should not be playing for the Democrats or the Republicans."

That makes sense.

Another noteworthy aspect is that Schnur's candidacy is viable only because of a new reform, the "top-two" open primary. It will be in place for the first time in statewide races on June 3.

Under the new system, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election runoff, regardless of their party. Also a voter, regardless of party registration, can choose any candidate.

Gone are the old-style party nominations. You could have two members of the same party — and probably will — running against each other in November. Or, say, a Democrat could be pitted against an independent.

The goal is to give pragmatic moderates a better shot because their fates won't be decided mostly by the extremist lefties or righties who have been dominating party primaries.

But Schnur, never before a candidate for anything, has some tough competition.

Also running are two Democratic legislators with solid records: Sen. Alex Padilla, a former Los Angeles city councilman, and Sen. Leland Yee, an ex-San Francisco supervisor.

A third Democrat in the race is a career political reformer, Derek Cressman, former head of California Common Cause.

So far there's only one Republican running: political neophyte Pete Peterson, who heads the Davenport public policy institute at Pepperdine University.

It would be to Schnur's advantage if another Republican jumped into the race and split the GOP vote. And the way these political games are played, don't be surprised if that happens.

The candidate filing period ends March 7.

With the current field, there are several scenarios pegged mainly to political, geographic and ethnic demographics.

Offhand, you'd expect Padilla to finish first among Democrats because he's from the biggest population center and a Latino, an ethnic group rising fast politically. And if Peterson is the only Republican, he should dominate GOP voting. So a logical bet for November would be Padilla vs. Peterson.

But independents are the fastest growing voter group. And a lot of voters are disgusted with both parties. So Schnur could squeeze into the runoff.

"Voters clearly want more choices than a Democrat or a Republican," says Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic strategist who is co-managing the campaign with Republican consultant Rob Stutzman.

"There is a very deep distrust today of our governmental institutions. And collectively, the two parties are in charge."

For handicappers, the voter registration breakdown in California at last count was Democrats 44%, Republicans 29%, independents and minor parties 27%. Also, the ethnic mix relevant for Padilla and Yee is Latinos 22%, Asians 9%.

But not so fast, it's not that simple, says Paul Mitchell, who runs a nonpartisan number-crunching firm called Political Data.

Based on recent history, Mitchell predicts that significantly more Republicans and fewer independents and Latinos will vote in the primary than registration numbers would indicate. He projects this likely turnout: Democrats 45%, Republicans 38%, independents and minor parties 17%. Also: Latinos 14%, Asians 8%.

That's good news for Peterson. Bad news for Schnur and Padilla.

And there's more for Padilla because voters tend to side with the local guy. Although there are nearly twice as many registered voters in L.A. County as in the San Francisco Bay Area, more Bay Areans than Angelenos cast ballots during 2012 primary. Mitchell attributes that to L.A. making it harder to vote by mail.

As for Schnur attracting nonpartisans, Mitchell says that "independents tend not to go to primaries. They don't see them as their playgrounds."

But with the rules changing, the playground could become more appealing.

Schnur will be attacking Sacramento, his old stomping ground.

He arrived here in 1991 as Gov. Pete Wilson's spokesman, after a similar stint with the state GOP. Later he advised U.S. Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and gubernatorial bids by L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth.

Then he became a poli-sci professor, first at UC Berkeley and later as director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He pushed for the open primary and independent redistricting. And for about a year, he chaired the watchdog state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"When I returned to Sacramento," Schnur says, "I was amazed by how pervasive and all-encompassing the political fundraising had become. It never stops."

Back at USC, he chucked his Republican label and became an independent. "I realized both parties were equally complicit in how broken the system had become," he says.

Schnur wants to ban political fundraising during legislative sessions. He also advocates requiring candidates to report political contributions online within 24 hours. He'd upgrade the state computer system to make the data more accessible to the public — and do a bunch of other good-government stuff.

This looks like the most intriguing race on the ballot, one that could start a trend of nonpartisans running for statewide office. Conceivably even winning.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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