SACRAMENTO (AP) — A string of legal cases against lawmakers that include two Democrats facing political corruption charges has magnified the usually quiet race for the office overseeing California elections and campaign fundraising.
Candidates vying to become secretary of state are offering competing plans to inject transparency and restore public faith in government.
A race that typically exists in the political backwaters of a California election season popped on to the public stage earlier this year when one of the top candidates, Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, was arrested and later indicted on federal corruption charges as part of a wider probe into illicit dealings in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yee has since pleaded not guilty and dropped his candidacy, even though his name will remain on the June 3 primary ballot.
The charges against Yee include allegations that he peddled his influence in the Legislature in exchange for campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents.
State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, is fighting similar charges in a separate federal case, while Democratic Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for lying about his legal residency in the Los Angeles area. Their fellow senators suspended all three.
In April, the California Fair Political Practices Commission fined state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and his brother Bill, a former Republican member of the Assembly, for illegally transferring campaign cash.
Secretary of state candidates seeking to replace the termed out incumbent, Democrat Debra Bowen, are capitalizing on the cases to propose reforms.
Among them is overhauling the Cal-Access database that tracks campaign spending and contributions. The system, maligned as outdated and cumbersome, has long been targeted for a reboot.
“Anyone who uses it today knows it’s too slow, and even if you make it faster, that’s still not enough,” said state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles.
Candidates are suggesting a variety of changes and updates: Padilla wants notifications of new activity and prompt disclosure; Republican Pete Peterson, who runs a civic engagement think tank at Pepperdine University, wants Californians to compare politicians’ campaign finances with their economic interests; and Derek Cressman, a former leader of the advocacy group Common Cause, wants contributions coded by industry.
Independent Dan Schnur said the bigger job for the secretary of state is advocating for policies that force politicians to spend more time governing and less time fundraising.
Transparency promises are a perennial issue in secretary of state races, says San Jose State University professor Larry Gerston, yet often go nowhere after the election. The candidates point to their respective backgrounds to show how they will deliver.
Peterson said he has been immersed in a world that seeks to make government data accessible, as an adviser to OpenGov and through initiatives at his institute at the university in Malibu.
“If there is one thing government needs to be bigger about, it is supporting and promoting civic engagement,” Peterson said during a recent candidates’ debate.
He has rejected the strategies of Republicans elsewhere in the country to require voter identification at the polls and restrict voting hours.
Cressman said he has managerial experience as vice president of state operations at Common Cause fighting big money in politics.
Schnur, a former Republican strategist who also was chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, says he tackled the database during his time leading the state’s campaign watchdog agency. He convened a taskforce identifying affordable ways to allow candidates to file records online with the secretary of state, although the recommendations ultimately were not adopted.
Padilla, the only elected official still in the race, said he is the only candidate versed in budget negotiations and policy making. He has written multiple ethics-reform bills that are moving through the Legislature, including a ban on lawmakers’ fundraising during the last 100 days of the legislative session.
Padilla said his bill would separate special interest money from key votes. But Schnur says it doesn’t go far enough, calling for an end to fundraising during the entire nine-month session.
While Peterson supports Schnur’s idea, he said lawmakers and special interests would likely find a way around it. Cressman and Green Party candidate David Curtis support public financing of campaigns to eliminate the need for politicians to fundraise at all.
“We need to get the big money out of politics, not just reschedule it,” said Cressman, who advocates against corporate spending in politics.
It’s not clear how much the lawmaker scandals and reform proposals will resonate with voters in the June primary.
“The trouble with this race is the secretary of state deals with issues that are both important and boring,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Most voters haven’t the faintest idea what the secretary of state does.”
That leaves party affiliation as the deciding factor for many voters.
But a constitutional amendment proposed by Republican state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell would make the office nonpartisan as an attempt to elevate it above partisan politics.
Schnur, who teaches politics and communications at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley, said a partisan secretary of state is inherently conflicted when managing elections and that he would be the state’s loudest voice for good government without partisan baggage. He dropped his Republican Party affiliation in 2011 and was previously a spokesman for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and the John McCain presidential campaign in 2000.
“The umpire shouldn’t be wearing a Giants or a Dodgers jersey, and the state’s chief elections officer shouldn’t be suiting up for the Republicans or the Democrats,” Schnur said.
His opponents agree the secretary of state should run the office in a fair and even-handed way, but also say it’s disingenuous to hide their party affiliations from voters.
The office also is tasked with overseeing business registration and incorporation but is criticized as slow and difficult for entrepreneurs to navigate. Candidates are proposing ways to make it easier to start a business in California, such as improved online registration and a shorter response time from the state.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in June advance to the November general election regardless of political party. Curtis, the Green Party candidate, is running primarily to protest that system, which he says disadvantages third party candidates. He also supports other electoral reforms, including online voting and ranked-choice voting.