The race for the office of secretary of state is one of those down-ticket contests that usually don’t garner much attention. This year, however, the race is among the most closely watched by political observers, for a number of reasons. First, the current secretary of state, Democrat Debra Bowen, is termed out, and an unusually diverse and talented group of candidates is seeking to replace her. When voters get their ballots, they’ll see the names of state legislators, a government watchdog, a Republican operative turned no-party-preference political reformer, and a civic engagement expert.
The race was already interesting, and then Leland Yee made headlines. The Democratic state senator was considered a favorite until late March, when he was arrested in an FBI sweep and indicted on charges of selling his influence for campaign cash and attempting to broker illegal gun deals. This came a month after state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon was indicted on charges of taking bribes. And suddenly the focus of the race shifted to cleaning up corruption in Sacramento. Drain the swamp! Make the secretary of state the reformer in chief! Take the money out of politics!
The problem is that the secretary of state doesn’t have the power to drain the swamp. The Legislature and governor can pass laws to limit fundraising or, say, to mandate that political contributions are disclosed within 24 hours. The Fair Political Practices Commission adopts and enforces campaign finance and conflict-of-interest regulations. When it comes to campaign reform, the secretary of state is merely the custodian of campaign finance and lobbying records, and is responsible for making those disclosures available for public viewing — a responsibility the office has failed to perform adequately. The Cal-Access website could be a useful tool to track who’s giving money to political campaigns; instead, it’s difficult to navigate and prone to crashes.
And that is the dilemma of the race. There’s an understandable desire to champion political reform, particularly given the recent bribery and corruption scandals in Sacramento, but the more appropriate task for the next secretary of state is simply to make the office function effectively. The problems go beyond Cal-Access. The office has struggled to build the statewide voter registration database, VoteCal, that would let residents search to see whether they’re registered to vote and, if so, their polling place. Problems with contractors and other issues delayed the VoteCal launch, which is now due in 2016, and that has postponed other efforts to increase voter turnout, such as same-day registration and allowing 17-year-olds to pre-register before they reach the legal voting age.
Likewise, the secretary of state’s office has come under fire for its unhelpful online business portal, its reliance on paper filings and delays in business registration processing (which took as long as six weeks last year, before legislators and the governor allocated money for staff to reduce the wait, which is now typically less than a week).
These are all technical challenges that require engaged, committed and creative leadership. The next secretary of state should be fully invested in the office, with a clear sense of its mission as well as the opportunities it offers to make California a leader in voting, political transparency and civic engagement. The candidate who best meets that description is Pete Peterson.
Peterson, a Republican, is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, and he’s spent the last several years training government officials on how to get citizens to participate in decision-making and how to use technology to improve communication with the public. He says he wants to be California’s “chief engagement officer,” which sounds corny but is a fitting approach to a job that entails making it as easy as possible for people to vote, and to learn about whom and what they’re voting for. Unlike some in the Republican Party, Peterson does not support voter ID laws and other supposed anti-fraud initiatives that would suppress legitimate voters. He does bring a Republican’s welcome focus on streamlining the office’s business registration system and tracking why companies are opening or closing in the state.
Like Peterson, Derek Cressman, a Democrat, has excellent qualifications for the job. As an executive with the good-government group Common Cause, Cressman advocated for fair elections and campaign finance reform, and he would continue that advocacy as secretary of state. He has intelligent ideas about how to improve voter education, including creating an online voter guide with candidate videos, footage of debates and campaign contribution data.
Similarly, Dan Schnur would fight for anti-corruption laws, including banning political contributions during the legislative session. A former Republican consultant who became the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, Schnur is running as an independent and hopes to be the first independent candidate elected to statewide office.
But both Cressman and Schnur are too focused on making the office a bully pulpit for political reform rather than addressing the more mundane tasks of the job.
State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) has immersed himself in the details of the job, meeting with most county election officials and introducing bills to ban campaign contributions in the final 100 days of the legislative session and to increase the frequency of campaign finance disclosures. Yet we are concerned that Padilla sees the job merely as a steppingstone to higher office, at a moment when California needs a secretary of state who is 100% committed to modernizing the office, creating more transparent political campaigns and helping increase the number of educated, engaged and voting citizens.
We believe Peterson has the skills and passion to be the next secretary of state.