Secretary of State candidates make their case in early L.A. forum

Candidates for California secretary of state participated Monday in a forum aimed at boosting voter interest. From left, Derek Cressman, David S. Curtis, Alex Padilla, Pete Peterson, Dan Schnur and Leland Yee.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Meeting in Los Angeles Monday night, all six announced candidates for California secretary of state offered their sometimes-contrasting views of the job each hopes to win in this year’s elections.

Co-hosted by the ACLU of Southern California, the League of Women Voters of California and the California Endowment, the candidates forum was the first of four planned around the state. The goal is to draw more attention to the office and the challenges it faces, including modernizing voter records and technology and improving dismal registration and turnout.

For example, only 65.6% of Californians eligible to vote were registered in 2012, according to U.S. Census data. Voter turnout in the last presidential elections was just 57.5%, putting California in 43rd place among the 50 states.


All six candidates vying to replace termed-out Secretary of State Debra Bowen said they want to improve those numbers, but they proposed somewhat different routes for getting there.

Democratic state Sens. Alex Padilla of Pacoima and Leland Yee of San Francisco talked about growing up with immigrant parents and the legislation they have worked on to smooth California’s voting systems.

Padilla said his degree in engineering could help him improve the state’s lagging system of tracking campaign donations and meet its goal of building an online database of voters.

“Our democracy works best when the maximum number of people participate,” Padilla said.

Yee said he was impressed by all his fellow candidates but said voters should judge candidates on their records.

“That’s the best assessment you can make,” Yee said after outlining the legislation he has played a leading role in passing.

Derek Cressman, a Democrat and former Common Cause excecutive, and Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist turned nonpartisan candidate, both said the influence of special interest money in elections and government must be curbed.


Voters “are disillusioned with the role of big money in politics,” Cressman said, while also calling for ways to improve access to balloting, such as expanding opportunities for people to vote before election day.

Schnur, a former chief of the California Fair Political Practices Commission and now an educator at USC, said breaking “the link between political giving and government action” is crucial to getting voters to “believe their voices matter.” He wants to ban fundraising while the Legislature is in session.

Architectual designer David S. Curtis, a Green Party member, said the state’s new voter-approved primary system represents a step backward in voter engagement because it allows only the top two primary finishers to advance to the fall ballot.

“There needs to be more choices” among general election candidates, Curtis said. Like Schnur, he said the secretary of state’s office should be nonpartisan.

Pete Peterson, the only Republican in the race, hammered on the office’s poor technology as a barrier to improving participation. He runs the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine University.

Peterson said he is the “only candidate who has trained government officials how to use technology” to improve turnout. “You have to be a marketer and a promoter” to attract voters, he said.


Schnur injected a bit of drama into an otherwise low-key, controversy-free forum when he twice called for the expulsion of two state senators currently on paid leave and challenged the other candidates to do the same.

Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) is awaiting sentencing on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud for lying about where he lived when he ran for office. Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) has been indicted on federal bribery, money laundering and other charges but not convicted of any crimes. He has pleaded not guilty.

“Both are getting a paid vacation,” as well as adding to voters’ disillusionment, Schnur said. The other candidates ignored him on that point.

Telemundo52 journalist Azalea Iniguez moderated the forum, held at the California Endowment’s headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. The forum was live-streamed and will be repeated on the city of Los Angeles’ cable Channel 36.


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Twitter: @jeanmerl