Would-be successors to Secretary of State Debra Bowen promised Wednesday to inject new life into an office they said has become technologically inept and disengaged.
“A lot of people either see this job as a stepping stone or a couch. And I think what we’ve been living through for the last eight years has been an administration that has seen this as a couch,” Republican Pete Peterson said of Bowen, who took office in 2006, at Wednesday’s debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, credited Bowen, who cannot seek another term because of term limits, with preventing major ballot snafus akin to the Florida debacle during the 2000 election. “But can we, and should we, do much better? Absolutely,” Padilla said after the panel. “You have to have the vision.”
Peterson and Padilla were among four of the eight candidates for the top elections job at Wednesday’s forum, which also included Democrat Derek Cressman, a former official with California Common Cause, and independent Dan Schnur, an educator and former Republican strategist.
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Notably absent were suspended state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who ended his campaign shortly before being indicted on corruption and conspiracy charges; and Green Party candidate David Curtis, who was not invited to the debate and whose pledge to show up anyway prompted the presence of three Sacramento police officers downstairs.
Afterward, Curtis blamed his exclusion on an undemocratic relationship between “corporate media” and “corporate candidates” based on advertising dollars.
Seated in a ballroom about six blocks from Bowen’s office, Peterson, Schnur, Cressman and Padilla echoed each other’s criticism of the state’s Cal-Access campaign-finance database and a paper-based business filing system.
Cressman said Bowen has failed to champion more money for county election offices, which have been hit by the cutoff of some state reimbursement in recent years. And Schnur, back when he was chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, said Bowen rebuffed his offer to collaborate on improving Cal-Access.
“All four of us on the stage as well as the other candidates, I believe, would address the issues inherent to the responsibilities of the secretary of state’s office more aggressively, more innovatively, than they’ve been done in many years. That’s a given,” Schnur said.
Claiming he would be the best successor to Bowen, Padilla said he would work with the Legislature to get more money for the office as well as improve relations with county election officials. Cressman countered that Bowen’s tenure shows that former lawmakers are ill-suited for the job.
Schnur, who wants to make the office nonpartisan, said he would be a “reformer in chief” in the post. And Peterson, calling the position a dream job, said he would modernize the office as the state’s “chief engagement officer.”
Bowen’s office brushed off the criticism. “We understand that it’s part of politics to run against the incumbent even though there is no incumbent in the race,” spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said in an email.
Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said Bowen’s tenure has been marked by “extreme budget difficulties in California.
“That has led her to be extremely cautious about new programs,” she said, adding, “The next secretary of state is going to face the same challenges.”
With Peterson and Padilla topping a recent Field Poll, there were signs of likely points of attack in the fall. Padilla challenged Peterson to disavow Republican measures in other states that critics contend are meant to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters.
Peterson said he disagreed with his party on those issues. “We don’t have a problem with people voting illegally. We have a problem of not enough people voting legally,” he said.
Peterson, meanwhile, questioned Padilla for not embracing ERIC, an inter-state consortium designed to quickly re-register voters who move.