California’s lopsided politics yield little election intrigue

Share via

SACRAMENTO — It has come to this: California politics have become so one-sided that the only half-way intriguing statewide races this spring are for two largely ministerial jobs.

One is secretary of state.

The other is state controller.

Both are pretty mundane.

The secretary of state oversees elections and maintains public databases on campaign contributions and lobbyists’ spending. The office also processes a lot of business-related stuff.

Sounds simple. But under termed-out Democrat Debra Bowen, few things seemingly have been simple. There have been glitches galore, mainly involving web technology.


“It has had more headaches than the Obamacare rollout,” says Allan Hoffenblum, frequent user of the state campaign finance database called Cal-Access. “They [the feds] at least got their web fixed.”

Hoffenblum publishes the California Target Book, which closely follows legislative races, and says he has been frequently frustrated trying to track how much money candidates are raising and where they’re getting it.

Bowen has blamed her problems on a shortage of funds caused by budget cutbacks during the recession.

As for the controller, he or she writes the state’s checks and has the power — not used enough — to audit how money is spent. The office also holds seats on some potent tax and regulatory boards.

The sexy offices — governor and attorney general — are considered slam-dunks this year for the Democratic incumbents, Jerry Brown and Kamala Harris.

Blame the pathetic Republican Party, which received more bad news Tuesday. Since the last gubernatorial election in 2010, the GOP’s share of the California electorate has dropped another 2 percentage points and is down to 28.6%.


Democrats lost 1 percentage point, but their share is 43.5%, giving them a huge advantage in statewide elections. Voters with no party preference increased by 1 point to 21.1%.

Under California’s new “top two” open primary system — with the first and second place finishers advancing to the general election, regardless of party — there’s no assurance a Republican will even be in every statewide runoff.

In the secretary of state contest, most political pros believe that Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, a former Los Angeles city councilman, will make it into the top two.

As a sitting legislator, Padilla has more name-ID — at least in vote-heavy L.A. — and can raise a lot more campaign money than his main Democratic rival, Derek Cressman, a former official of the political reform group Common Cause.

The big primary tussle for the other top two spot seems to be between Republican Pete Peterson, who heads the Davenport public policy institute at Pepperdine University, and no-party candidate Dan Schnur, who’s on leave from the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

Schnur, a former GOP operative, is trying to become the first nonpartisan elected to statewide partisan office in California. If he can raise enough money, he’ll go after Republican voters, trying to cut into Peterson’s natural support.


Also on the ballot, although he has withdrawn from the race, is disgraced state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), recently suspended by the Senate after being indicted on federal corruption charges.

A recent Field Poll found Peterson leading among likely voters at 30%, followed by Padilla with 17%. Trailing far behind were Green Party architectural designer David Curtis at 5%; Schnur, 4%; and Cressman, 3%.

But two other even lesser-known Democratic and Republican candidates were not included in the survey, so the result could have been skewed.

The controller race probably has the best chance of producing a GOP winner. The Field Poll found Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin leading in the primary with 28%, followed by two Democrats: Board of Equalization member Betty Yee (no relation to Leland) at 19% and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, 14%.

But enough of the controller race. Back to that another day.

On Wednesday, there was a debate between the four secretary of state candidates deemed by the host Sacramento Press Club to be the most viable: Peterson, Padilla, Schnur and Cressman.

It was pretty much a geekfest, with dialogue about web technology dominating the Q&As.

All four candidates vowed to do a better job than Bowen has in making campaign finance data easily accessible to the public.


Enough funding already is available, Cressman asserted. “This is not rocket science.”

Schnur contended Cal-Access could “be upgraded for relatively little cost.”

I asked whether any candidate thought that perhaps we’d gone overboard printing ballots in so many languages — up to seven in L.A. County. It’s costly and confusing. After all, to be eligible to vote one must be a citizen who can read at least some English.

No candidate bit. Padilla said the federal Voting Rights Act requires printing multi-language ballots.

Also, no candidate seemed to think that technology had advanced far enough to permit online voting.

Padilla rapped Peterson for guilt by association, belonging to a party that has tried “to restrict voting rights.” Peterson responded that any such sins shouldn’t be hung on him. He has spent many years promoting citizen involvement, the GOP candidate said. “I do not support voter I.D. initiatives.”

Padilla said Senate corruption scandals had provided a rare opportunity for political reform. He touted a bill of his, approved Tuesday by the Senate elections committee, that would ban legislative fundraising during the crucial final 100 days of a legislative session. That’s aimed at eliminating the perception — in some cases the reality — of special interests buying votes.

Schnur advocates eliminating legislative fundraising for the entire session.

Cressman went a big step further. He said the secretary of state “needs to stand up and take on” the U.S. Supreme Court for allowing corporations and multimillionaires to spend lavishly in election campaigns.


OK, but let’s get that website fixed first.