Politics

You may not have heard of these California jobs, but you'll be voting on them

While a bevy of political hopefuls have jumped into the 2018 races for governor and lieutenant governor, most of California’s other premiere statewide political posts aren’t exactly drawing a crowd.

Aside from governor, California has seven constitutional officers chosen by the statewide electorate — all of which will be on the 2018 ballot.

Two Democratic incumbents, Controller Betty Yee and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, have yet to get challengers. And the state treasurer and insurance commissioner posts, usually catnip to the politically ambitious, have just a single candidate apiece.

Most striking is the dearth of Republican candidates, a possible symptom of the party’s decline in California and dismal prospects for victory. The last time a Republican won a statewide race was 2006.

The June primary election, when the top two finishers advance to a general election, is still 11 months away, so there’s time for other candidates to join the fray. But the sluggish rollout to the 2018 campaign is still surprising given how coveted these posts usually are.

Though often obscure, the lower-rung offices have proven to be a gateway to higher office and an elixir for political longevity. Over the last century, 11 of 16 California governors ascended directly from a statewide office, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who twice went from a statewide office to the governor’s mansion.

The famous Chief Justice Earl Warren leapfrogged from the state attorney general’s office to the governor’s office to the U.S. Supreme Court. And more recently, Kamala Harris hitched a ride from the attorney general’s office to the U.S. Senate in November.

Here’s where the statewide races stand:

Lieutenant governor

State Sen. Ed Hernandez of Azusa, right, smiles as he joins Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and then-Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis in 2016.
State Sen. Ed Hernandez of Azusa, right, smiles as he joins Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and then-Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis in 2016. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Before he decided to run for lieutenant governor in 2010, current gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom dismissed the job as “a largely ceremonial post ... with no real authority.” But that hasn’t stopped Newsom from wringing out every ounce of political power and news coverage possible during his two terms in the position.

The lieutenant governor sits on the Board of Regents of the University of California, the Board of Trustees of the California State University system and the State Lands Commission. Newsom used those spots as a megaphone to rail against tuition hikes, attack President Trump’s plans to open the coastline to off-shore oil drilling, and demand immigrant students who entered the county illegally be shielded from deportation.

The lieutenant governor also automatically becomes governor if that office is vacated for any reason, and serves as president of the state Senate and votes in cases of a tie.

Plenty of candidates are lining up to take Newsom’s place, making it the hottest statewide contest outside of the governor’s race.

The biggest potential wild card is Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), who has stockpiled $1.6 million in a campaign committee for lieutenant governor. But he is not actively running, and all indications are that De León has his eyes on another office, though it’s not clear which one.

That’d be good news for the top contenders in the field. Those in the race include:

State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa), who has quickly scooped up endorsements from prominent California Democrats.

Democratic fundraiser Eleni Kounalakis of San Francisco, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and Hillary Clinton fundraiser.

Bay Area attorney Jeff Bleich, a former U.S. ambassador to Australia and special counsel to President Obama.

Los Angeles physician Asif Mahmood, a Democrat and supporter of a “Medicare for all” national healthcare plan. Mahmood, a Muslim and immigrant from Pakistan, describes himself as a “triple threat” to Trump.

Former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, an independent who casts herself as the “Bernie Sanders of the East Bay.”

Republican David Hernandez, a San Fernando Valley community activist who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Los Angeles.

Attorney general

Gov. Jerry Brown introduces then-Rep. Xavier Becerra at an Assembly confirmation hearing in January.
Gov. Jerry Brown introduces then-Rep. Xavier Becerra at an Assembly confirmation hearing in January. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The race for California attorney general was basically blown to smithereens in January when Brown surprised many by appointing then-Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) to fill the vacancy created after state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Becerra is now considered the front-runner in the 2018 race since he has the advantage of incumbency for the role as California’s top crime fighter and public safety officer. Becerra also has become one of President Trump’s more visible antagonists, challenging administration orders on immigration, the environment and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Others in the running:

State Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones was the weightiest Democrat in the race until Becerra showed up, and he’s staying put. Although Jones’ chances have been diminished, the former state assemblyman has strong support among many Democrats.

South Lake Tahoe Judge Steven Bailey, a Republican. The El Dorado County judge was first elected to the bench in 2008.

Victims’ rights lawyer Nina Salarno, a Republican of Auburn and president of Crime Victims United of California.

Secretary of state

Voters cast ballots at a polling station in Watts Towers Arts Center in November.
Voters cast ballots at a polling station in Watts Towers Arts Center in November. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Right now, there’s not much going on in this race because Secretary of State Alex Padilla is the only declared candidate so far.

The secretary of state is California’s chief elections officer, a job that includes overseeing federal and state elections, all voting equipment and candidates’ campaign finance disclosures. The agency also registers lobbyists, California businesses and maintains the state archives.

Padilla is a former state senator and Los Angeles City Council president who inherited an agency that for years was stuck in neutral with outdated technology and a lackluster track record on improving voter registration and turnout. The MIT graduate has spent his first term working to put the agency back on track.

Like most Democratic politicians in California, Padilla has continuously bashed Trump on a variety of issues, including the president’s unsubstantiated claim of massive voter fraud in the November election. Padilla was among the first state elections officials to reject a request by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who serves as vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, to hand over data from California's 19.4 million voters.

Controller

State Controller Betty Yee greets a lawmaker during a joint session of the California Legislature in 2016.
State Controller Betty Yee greets a lawmaker during a joint session of the California Legislature in 2016. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Democrat Betty Yee won the 2014 controller’s race pretty handily and, so far, hasn’t attracted a single challenger in her bid for reelection.

This post has proven to be a political springboard. Gray Davis served as controller before moving on to lieutenant governor and governor. John Chiang held the post for two terms before being elected state treasurer and then launching his 2018 campaign for governor.

California's controller is responsible for managing the state's cash, meeting payroll and paying bills on time. The officeholder also has the ability to audit state and local governments and sits on dozens of state boards and commissions, all of which can gin up some politically advantageous news coverage.

Treasurer

Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma is the only candidate in the running to become California’s next state banker, as the treasurer is known. But don’t expect that to last long.

The governor and legislature just stripped the elected members of the Board of Equalization of most of their duties and powers following an investigation into the tax board after auditors accused the agency of mismanagement.

Ma, a former Democratic assemblywoman from San Francisco who was elected to the tax board in 2014, had earlier called for the investigation and had been pushing for a massive overhaul of the agency.

Despite that, the whiff of scandal could make her politically vulnerable, and that should attract more candidates.

The treasurer job is one of the more unheralded political posts in California. The treasurer handles state debt, which includes selling the bonds that fund major projects. And, along with the state controller, the treasurer sits on panels that manage California's two major pension funds for public employees, the largest of their kind in the country.

Insurance commissioner

State Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens is so far the only candidate officially in the running.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens is so far the only candidate officially in the running. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

It’s unlikely most Californians could name the insurance commissioner — it’s Dave Jones, who has reached his term limit and is running for attorney general. But it’s a job that touches many of their lives.

The commissioner runs the 1,300-person Department of Insurance, an agency that licenses, regulates and examines the financial strength of insurance companies, including those providing auto, property and health coverage, deals with public complaints and questions about the insurance industry, and enforces insurance laws and regulations.

This open seat initially drew a fair amount of interest, but the only candidate officially in the running is state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

Lara has been one of Sacramento’s strongest advocates for immigrant rights and was the co-author of a bill to establish a single-payer healthcare system in California, legislation that was recently shelved.

Superintendent of public instruction

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The 2018 race for state superintendent of public instruction is primed to be another showdown between charter school supporters and teachers unions.

The superintendent leads a department that oversees more than $80 billion in education funding. The superintendent interprets and enforces the vast number of education laws, oversees standardized testing and also can help shape education policies put forward by the governor, the state Legislature and the federal Department of Education.

The two candidates in the race are:

• Marshall Tuck, who lost his bid for the post in 2014. Tuck previously led Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles-based independent charter school chain, and in the 2014 race was embraced by charter school advocates and others calling for increased teacher accountability.

• State Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), who previously served on the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board, and is already seeing contributions from teachers unions pour into his campaign.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Twitter: @philwillon

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