It may seem like one of the sleepier statewide elected offices, but just 20 years ago a California secretary of state was able to detonate enough fireworks during a single term to be elected governor.
That was Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.
More typical were the two Frank Jordans, father and son, who served quietly over more than half of this century, in a day when death and not the state Constitution set term limits for the office.
This year, four candidates from the major parties are in the running for the post--one of those jobs that can serve as the minor leagues for big league posts such as governor.
An unpredictable three-way contest among Democrats features former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore of Los Angeles, and the acting secretary of state, Tony Miller.
In the Republican primary, Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno is unopposed.
None of the candidates register on the Richter scale of public awareness--with the exception of Woo, runner-up in the Los Angeles mayoral race last year.
All the competitors facing off in the primary have compiled substantial records in government service.
But there are liabilities for these candidates as well. Supporters of each have raised questions about what they say are the ethical lapses of the others. And those who watch the office closely believe that whoever wins ought to be a model of integrity.
Whether or not the post can ever again be a way station on the path to higher office, several observers agree that the job is an important one.
The secretary of state coordinates elections and voter registration, collects campaign fund-raising reports, maintains the state's historical archives and handles a variety of business filings, including corporate records and trademark applications. The office also puts out the statewide ballot pamphlet. Despite the title, the job has nothing to do with foreign affairs.
Miller, 45, has received national attention as the first openly gay candidate for a statewide office, apparently anywhere in the country. His campaign has received only modest financial support from gay organizations, and he says he is not running as a gay candidate.
"The issue is qualification and experience to do the job," said Miller, who took over as acting secretary of state when March Fong Eu stepped down in February to become ambassador to Micronesia.
Miller, an attorney, has worked in the office for 18 years, first as its chief legal counsel and then as top deputy. Before that, he served briefly as a member of the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Since taking over, he has sued Gov. Pete Wilson for the Administration's allegedly slow response to the new, federal "motor voter" requirements, which will allow citizens to register to vote when applying for a driver's license or welfare. And under Miller's direction, the statewide voters pamphlet for the first time carries candidates' statements and photographs--as well as his own signature prominently on the cover.
Miller has attempted to break the link between lobbying and campaign contributions through a voluntary system of signing up lobbyists who say they no longer want elected officials to ask them for campaign contributions.
"Just as Watergate spawned the Political Reform Act of 1974, I clearly believe that Shrimpgate (a federal sting operation in the state Capitol) should spawn the reforms of the 1990s," Miller said.
He proposes a ban on lobbyists' arranging clients' campaign contributions. He wants limits on the size of all contributions, opposes using public money directly to finance campaigns, but says the state ought to consider buying television time to sponsor candidate debates.
And he is backing a proposal to make the office nonpartisan.
Miller's opponents contend that as chief deputy he was lax in enforcing fines against those who were late in filing campaign finance reports. These critics say Miller has forgiven millions of dollars in fines, including more than $25,000 that should have been collected from Eu.
Miller says he has been evenhanded in administering the fines, reducing them only for "non-willful" violations.
Moore, 53, is the favorite of party regulars, labor unions and other traditional Democratic supporters and he hopes that that support will overcome Woo's wider name recognition and Miller's place on the ballot as "the acting secretary of state."
"My vision for the secretary of state's office is to move it into the Information Age," she said in an interview. Among her ideas: an electronic voters pamphlet available through libraries, schools and home computers, giving voters a full range of views and opinions by and about candidates.
Once a Los Angeles County probation officer, Moore got her start in elected politics as a member of the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees. She has been an assemblywoman for 15 years.
Moore carried the landmark family leave act requiring most employers to give unpaid time off to employees to care for sick family members. She is also the author of bills that established "lifeline" reduced phone rates and ended state tax deductions for membership in clubs that discriminate against women and minorities.
But her opponents focus on her unwitting role in the FBI Capitol corruption probe--the elaborate sting operation that has resulted in the conviction of 12 elected officials and their aides. In 1986 and in 1988, she accepted campaign money from undercover agents and carried special interest bills that would have allowed a bogus company to open a shrimp processing plant near Sacramento.
After a lengthy investigation, the U.S. attorney in Sacramento announced the indictment of her former aide Tyrone H. Netters, but said he would not prosecute Moore.
However, transcripts of recordings secretly made by undercover agents could prove embarrassing to the veteran lawmaker.
On the tapes, Moore at times shies away from talking about campaign contributions with the agents, who were posing as Southern businessmen seeking favors. At one point she said she agreed to carry legislation because "I thought it was a good idea and not because of potential contributions."
But in another conversation, she referred an undercover agent's questions about campaign contributions to Netters, adding: "Don't you pay unless you clear it with me direct."
Today, Moore is annoyed that her integrity should be questioned more than three years after the matter was dropped: "The fact is one of my staff people chose not to follow the law. . . . I was found completely innocent."
Woo, 42, heads into the Democratic primary as the likely favorite after spending more than $5 million for a second-place finish in the Los Angeles mayoral race. He has name familiarity that could make a difference in a race among relative unknowns.
Woo got his start in public life as an aide to Democratic state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys). Since losing the mayoral race, he has been a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and has been teaching at UCLA and Caltech.
In his eight years on the Los Angeles City Council, Woo was a champion of civil rights and rent control, and an opponent of police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
He repeatedly clashed with former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates over police reforms and was one of the first to call for Gates' resignation after the Rodney G. King beating. But Woo has also backed efforts to put more officers on the streets.
As a candidate for statewide office he is emphasizing his authorship of the city's sweeping ethics reform measure, which established partial public funding of campaigns and a ban on moonlighting by elected officials. He wants similar legislation at the state level.
"I will do the most to fight corruption in state government," he said recently, adding that he is the only one of the four candidates "not connected to the status quo in Sacramento."
His critics are quick to point out that Woo has had ethical problems of his own. The Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $2,000 for a conflict of interest, when, as a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, he voted on an issue affecting a contributor. His mayoral campaign took in nearly $6,000 in cash contributions in apparent violation of the city's elections law, but returned the money after a Times reporter raised questions about it.
The incidents have allowed his opponents to accuse him of hypocrisy.
The accusations do not surprise him. "One of the main reasons why politicians don't want to lead the fight for reform is that it holds them up to higher standards," he said.