SACRAMENTO — Stirred up by a series of Capitol scandals, four candidates for California secretary of state clashed at a forum Wednesday over who is best suited to restore voter faith in state government.
Candidates Alex Padilla, Dan Schnur, Pete Peterson and Derek Cressman also challenged one another's ideas for reducing the corrupting influence of big money in state government.
The event sponsor, the Sacramento Press Club, did not invite the three other candidates for the job.
State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who holds a big fundraising lead, and several of whose legislative colleagues have been charged with crimes and suspended, was the main target of attacks. The other candidates said his recent proposals for tougher ethics rules were too little, too late.
"It's a little odd that after eight years in the Senate you are now proposing legislation that you are not actually going to have to abide by," said Peterson, a Republican and the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, a think tank at Pepperdine University.
"What took you so long?" asked Schnur, a former chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission, an ethics watchdog.
Padilla said the four bills he had proposed recently were in response to the arrests of three colleagues. Their troubles, he said, increased public attention and provided "a unique window of opportunity" for passage of such bills.
Padilla has proposed a three-month ban on campaign fundraising at the end of each legislative session to create "a separation between the legislative activity and the political activity."
Schnur, a no-party candidate who pledges to be the state's "reformer in chief," said Padilla's proposal was inadequate. He wants a ban on fundraising during the whole legislative session.
That broader step would weaken "the link between political giving and government action," said Schnur, who is on leave as director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Peterson and Cressman questioned the effectiveness of such bans, saying contributors could pledge donations during the session but deliver them later.
"They can work around it," said Peterson, noting that four of the six contributions provided by an undercover FBI agent to Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) before Yee's indictment came as the Legislature was in recess.
Cressman, a Democrat and former director of the good-government group Common Cause, called for congressional action to overturn the Citizens United court decision that eliminated limits on corporate spending in elections. And he proposed more public financing of campaigns.
"We need to get the big money out of politics, not just reschedule it," Cressman said.
The candidates agreed that, because of security issues, the state was not ready to allow online voting in elections. But Peterson said the state can move from paper ballots to voting machines. He said his goal was to improve the use of technology to promote "greater civic engagement."
The candidates also agreed that the state needed to modernize the outdated and unreliable database that provides the public with information on who is giving money to candidates and spending money to lobby state officials.
Cressman said the database made it difficult for him to determine that Padilla had received about $100,000 in contributions from the payday loan industry.
Padilla did not respond during the forum. But his campaign later said he supported a bill to raise the amounts allowed in payday loans after it passed the Assembly on a bipartisan vote. It did not become law.
Padilla also came under criticism for voting in favor of a state budget that cut funding to county election offices. The senator countered that he was the only candidate visiting election officials in all 58 counties to gauge their needs.
He said his legislative experience put him in the best position to fight for adequate funding in future budgets.
The three candidates who were not invited to the forum were Green Party member David Curtis, Democrat Jeffrey H. Drobman and Republican Roy Allmond. Yee dropped out of the race after his arrest, although his name will be on the ballot.