OpinionEditorial

Bring on the candidates — it's election season in California

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Monday is opening day, of sorts, in the 2014 election season.

In the races for governor and seven other statewide offices, for Congress and the Legislature, and for four key Los Angeles County offices, everything up until now has been a kind of political spring training, with potential candidates testing their messages and building their war chests. But filing closed Friday, and now we're underway. Although election day is officially June 3, voting begins the first week of May, less than 60 days from now. The exhibition season is over. Candidates are playing for keeps.

The highest-profile of them is of course California's seemingly perpetual governor, Jerry Brown, now seeking his fourth term in an office he first won in the post-Watergate, pre-disco era. Twists in the term-limits law and the longevity of his political career have already allowed him to set the state's record for time served as governor. A fourth term would be unprecedented.

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Four other Democrats — currently serving as lieutenant governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner and the officially nonpartisan superintendent of public instruction — are seeking reelection for their final terms. Three Democrats are termed out as controller, treasurer and secretary of state. In each of those races, Republican and other challengers have an opportunity to make their case for ending the Democratic Party's four-year monopoly on power in constitutional office and its two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature.

But catching the voters' attention may be an uphill battle. What's the difference between a controller and a treasurer? What does the secretary of state do, and doesn't John F. Kerry already have that job? Why will there be automatic November runoffs for state offices but not necessarily for local offices? We'll do our best to answer such questions on this page, along with our recommendations of the candidates for all statewide offices who are most likely to serve California well.

There will be some high-profile congressional campaigns too, with Democratic stalwart Sen. Henry Waxman and longtime Republican Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon vacating their seats. There is a special off-year election to fill a Los Angeles Unified School District board seat left vacant by the death of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.

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In Los Angeles, though, it is the usually obscure or noncompetitive (or both) county elections that may bring the most sweeping changes, because of a 2002 term limits measure.

Now Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky are reaching the end of tenures that began two decades ago. Two other supervisors, Don Knabe and Michael D. Antonovich, will follow two years from now. That kind of sharp turnover in board membership has been unseen in modern Los Angeles and will bring opportunity for progress and potential for disaster. It is imperative that candidates demonstrate their understanding of the job they are seeking, and that they let voters know just how they intend to improve the operations of county government and the service it delivers to more than 10 million people.

It would hardly be enough, for example, to gripe about county government's record in protecting children from neglectful or abusive parents or foster parents, or to rail against its treatment of youth in probation camps or its abandonment of thousands of mentally ill to jails and the streets. Voters are well within their rights to demand explanations, diagnoses and, above all, straightforward plans for improvement. Candidates should expect to talk about their positions on transit, housing, economic development and environmental protection.

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The same term limits were meant to apply to the sheriff, and would have ended Lee Baca's tenure this year. Baca went to court to block application of the law to his office, and he won — but he left this year anyway amid allegations against his deputies of jail inmate abuse and obstruction of justice. His departure presents voters with the first seriously contested race for sheriff since Baca's first campaign in 1998, and the first time in decades that there has been no incumbent seeking reelection.

The sheriff's race will require candidates to explain how they intend to fix the long-standing problems of inmate abuse, bad hiring practices, financial mismanagement and poor planning. They should expect to present their plans for better treatment of mentally ill inmates. They should discuss how they intend to meet their duties to house felons who previously would have gone to state prisons. They would be wise to detail what they would do to prevent the need for Department of Justice officials to sue over civil rights violations, and what they would do if such a suit is nevertheless threatened and a consent decree ensues.

And amid all of that, voters must try to weigh candidates for Los Angeles County assessor, Superior Court and the Board of Equalization.

Wait — the board of what?

Citizenship is a demanding job and politics can be a confusing game, but they're worth the time and attention required. Play ball.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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