Considering the candidates

California’s gubernatorial primary is officially June 8, but voting by mail begins in just over five weeks. Voters will be asked not only to nominate potential successors to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger but also to fill seven other statewide offices and all four seats on the state’s elected tax board, to adopt or defeat five ballot measures and, in Los Angeles County, to elect six Superior Court judges and to choose someone to fill the important but too often low-profile job of county assessor. Just as Times news reporters continue to offer breaking news, analysis and other information about candidates, their races and issues, here on the opinion side, the editorial board has been researching issues, interviewing candidates and preparing to offer our ballot recommendations. Over the last several years, we have expanded our range of endorsements, and we expect to continue that trend this year by making endorsements in several party primaries because, increasingly, that’s where many of voters’ key decisions are made.

In recent years, The Times’ editorial page has most often endorsed Democrats, but we are not by any means wedded to doing so. We heartily endorsed three Republicans for statewide office in the general election four years ago, and we are examining candidates this year for both the Democratic and GOP nominations for U.S. Senate, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and insurance commissioner. We have always tended to look favorably on candidates who believe, as do we, that free markets are the best engines of prosperity -- but our enthusiasm sours when those who claim to defend freedom do not embrace the right to marry, terminate a pregnancy, live free of government snooping or express unpopular beliefs, or when their free-market zeal threatens rational protection of consumers and safety-net services for those who need help.

In general elections, we put ourselves in the shoes of voters and pick one candidate for each office while expressing any reservations we may harbor; in the primary, we reserve the right to endorse or not as we see fit. We will not endorse for gamesmanship, to set up an interesting match or to do what we think is best for any particular political party. We will endorse only candidates we would be willing to see in office, and then will consider before the November election which of the party nominees we would prefer.

This year marks the political high-water mark of the Silicon Valley Republican, as candidates Steve Poizner, Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Tom Campbell and others vie against other GOP members and among each other to carry the standard of a new brand, or at least a new generation, of entrepreneurial California conservatism. Their business roots go back decades, but they are messengers, in a sense, from California’s more recent Indian summer -- the brief but dizzying boom that followed the collapse of the aerospace economy and was followed in turn by the reappearance, and deepening, of the state’s economic malaise. They are candidates who, in image at least, have a natural affinity more with GOP mavericks such as John McCain and management consultants such as Mitt Romney than with the social conservatives or neoconservatives who defined the presidency of George W. Bush.


Democrats, meanwhile, in the gubernatorial primary have given themselves only the take-it-or-leave-it option of former Gov. Jerry Brown. That may not sound like a winning strategy in a state that has had only three Democratic governors in 100 years until you realize that, except for a one-term governor at the end of the Depression, every Democrat to serve the state as governor has been either Jerry’s Brown’s father, Jerry Brown’s former chief of staff, or Jerry Brown. Despite the lack of a primary contest, we’ll follow the race with interest and -- perhaps -- offer our opinion before the primary. The same is true of the Democratic U.S. Senate primary, in which incumbent Barbara Boxer faces a challenger.

Far less is generally known by voters about the down-ballot offices or the candidates who are seeking them. In this election, voters who are neither Democrats nor Republicans may request ballots in either primary, and The Times will examine candidates and may choose to endorse in primaries for attorney general, lieutenant governor, insurance commissioner and Board of Equalization. Again, we’ll endorse only candidates we’d be prepared to see serve.

The further one goes down the ballot, the less information is generally available, and consequently, we take our role particularly seriously in these races. In the nonpartisan contests for state superintendent of public instruction, Superior Court judge and county assessor, a candidate who gets more than 50% of the vote wins outright, without a November runoff.

This election brings with it the usual list of unfortunate phenomena that poorly serve voters. In Los Angeles County, for example, Sheriff Lee Baca and Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky are up for reelection, but this time no one -- not even gadfly or token candidates -- has filed to oppose them. That gives three of the most powerful leaders of the nation’s most populous county a free pass for another four-year term without so much as a debate about their performance or the county’s mission. (It will be the final term in these posts for both supervisors.) That’s hardly an indication of a vibrant and thriving democracy. But we admit to mixed feelings. Token opposition in recent years from ill-prepared or ideologically driven candidates has not generated much discussion or debate either.


Also lamentable is the continuing power of personal riches and special-interest fundraising to preselect candidates before voters get to weigh in. Voters should not automatically reject wealthy candidates or those who can raise lots of cash, but they, and we, become disenchanted with the process when it appears that the dollar, rather than the vote, has become the basic unit of selection.

Voters also will choose party nominees for the state’s most unpopular elected bodies, the Assembly and the Senate. When districts are as lopsided as they are toward one party or another, the primaries are where the important decisions are made, and The Times may pick out a few races and make recommendations. With these, as with the other races, our goal on the editorial page is to assist voters and spur debate with opinionated but informed analysis and discussion. Keep watching this space.