Secretary of State Debra Bowen tells of struggle with depression

Secretary of State Debra Bowen tells of her struggle with deep depression

Two months before Californians go to the polls to choose a governor, the state's top elections official tearfully acknowledged Friday that she has been consumed by a "debilitating" depression that has often kept her away from the office.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who oversees statewide voting, told The Times that she has a history of depression and has moved out of the two-story country home she owns with her husband. She now resides in a trailer park on the outskirts of Sacramento.

"I have suffered from depression since I was in college, and I am having a more difficult episode right now," Bowen, 58, said in an interview. "It's something we haven't talked about because there is such a stigma."

Bowen has frequently been absent from the office — including three days this week. But she said she can still perform her duties despite the recent return of her illness. She said she has continued to make public appearances and work from home.

"I have been in the office less, but I know this territory," said Bowen, an attorney. "Work is anyplace I have a telephone. Just because I'm physically not in the office doesn't mean I don't know what's going on and that I'm not participating."

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Evan Goldberg said Friday that Bowen "is continuing to do her work…. She is not physically in the office as much as she would like while she and her husband are dealing with this family situation."

Several tax liens in recent years have added to Bowen's troubles.

Although she earns $130,490 a year and owns two Sacramento homes worth $706,000 and $144,000, she was hit with three government tax liens totaling $14,591 for unpaid levies since 2009. The most recent, filed a year ago, states that she owed the state $4,623 in 2011 income taxes.

A federal tax lien, which included her husband, and one of two state liens against her alone, were lifted after the couple paid the taxes owed, county records show. Bowen's husband, Mark Nechodom, told The Times in an email that he paid off the last remaining lien Friday, after being contacted by a reporter.

Nechodom, who is director of California's Department of Conservation, described the unpaid lien as a minor oversight, saying that just $40.22 of the final debt had remained unpaid.

Bowen, a Democrat who served 14 years in the state Legislature, representing Marina del Rey and other parts of the South Bay, said the missed tax payments were unintentional.

"I think there was some confusion at the time," during which her husband was living in Washington, Bowen said. "I thought we had paid everything. It was certainly not my intention to not pay my taxes."

On Friday, Bowen said she wanted to share her troubles with the public, particularly after the suicide of actor Robin Williams, who also suffered from depression.

The pressures of elected office are intense, she explained, but she noted that she was open about being a recovering alcoholic while in the Legislature many years ago: "I got sober in 1995, while I was in the Assembly, which is no small feat."

She said she beat back addiction again after becoming hooked on prescription pain medicine while a member of the state Senate.

Depression, however, has proved to be a much tougher battle, even with treatment and medication, she said.

"It is debilitating. It wears on your soul," Bowen said, weeping. "It has been 30 years since I have had a depression that has weighed this heavily on me, so I am in new territory."

The secretary said she is receiving professional help, is comforted by support from friends and has not been hospitalized. She described her new living accommodations as a refuge, characterizing the mobile home park as one containing "extended-stay cottages."

Her trailer at Arden Acres has cracked windowsills, and some windows have cardboard behind the glass to block the sun. Behind it is a storage yard with a giant, rusting shipping container pressed against the other side of the fence. On Thursday, her state-issued Buick was parked outside, the back seats and front passenger seat full of cardboard boxes brimming with clothing and household goods.

A neighbor said they once did their laundry together at the park's washing machines. Bowen was nice, he said.

A woman who identified herself only as the manager of the trailer park described Bowen as "a very private person."

Bowen was elected by California voters to two four-year terms in her current post. Term limits prevented her from running again.

She has been criticized periodically for being distracted on the job, most recently during her 2010 reelection campaign. Republican challenger Damon Dunn noted then that the time it took her office to process business filings had more than tripled. (Bowen said a backlog was due to budget cuts.)

In addition, a project that now allows online voter registration was four years behind schedule. Bowen had said it takes time to find the right contractor.

Open-government advocates bashed her for failing to upgrade California's online campaign finance reporting system, which is antiquated and unwieldy. Bowen has made it easier for the public to get information online about elections.

The secretary of state's office is responsible for enforcing election laws and printing ballot pamphlets, receiving and electronically posting reports of contributions to and spending by political campaigns. The office also handles the registration of corporations and is custodian of the state archives.

Aside from addressing the tax liens, Bowen's husband declined to talk about his wife's struggles.

Nechodom was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in December 2011 to his $136,000-a-year job.

Bowen said the future of her marriage remains uncertain. Because of her history of depression, she opted not to have children, implying that they might suffer the same way. She thought it would be irresponsible to put another person "through that pain."

"I don't know what the future holds," Bowen said, "but I do know this: I will get through this."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

Times staff writers Chris Megerian and Paige St. John contributed to this report.

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