Politics & Government

Pérez recount prompts frustration, November fears from some Democrats

An email to Democratic donors Thursday urged people to help Betty Yee, the Democrat who narrowly claimed second place in last month’s primary for state controller, but who now “is losing valuable fundraising time” because of “an arduous recount.”

The plea notably came from Hilary Crosby, the controller of the California Democratic Party, on party letterhead. And it never mentions the man seeking the recount, Assemblyman John A. Pérez, a party stalwart and former Assembly speaker.

It’s the latest sign of impatience with Pérez in some Democratic circles as the controller’s recount, now in its sixth day, continues to a third county next week. Some activists worry that the recount will undermine the party’s chances in November against Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, for an office that historically has been a fall battleground.

There also is frustration with Pérez taking full advantage of California law that allows candidates to pay for recounts in places of their choosing. Pérez has sought hand recounts in thousands of precincts where he did particularly well and which, in some counties, had disproportionately large Latino populations as of the most recent census.

“I just don’t think we can be divided,” said Becky Curry, the chairwoman of the Lake County Democratic Party, who earlier this week co-wrote a column in The Sacramento Bee urging Pérez to call off the recount. “I know a lot of people support former Speaker Pérez. But Betty went through the process, and she got the most votes.”

Pérez supporters dismiss what they call unfair criticism by Yee supporters. Pérez, they note, is doing what Yee or any other candidate would do if they lost by one-hundredth of a percent – 481 votes out of more than 4 million cast in the controller’s contest last month.

Eric C. Bauman, a vice-chairman of the California Democratic Party, said Pérez critics “need to take a deep breath.”

“The reality is, he has the right to see if he actually won the race or not,” Bauman said of Pérez. “It’s unfortunate that some party leaders have said it’s over and we’re going to push to a conclusion and not letting it come to its rightful end.”

The state certified the election results last Friday. In rapid succession , California Democrats cut a $50,000 check to Yee, and the party’s executive board, meeting in Oakland, anointed Yee as the party’s endorsed candidate. Yee consultant Parke Skelton said the money will be spent to pay legal fees related to the recount.

Party Chairman John Burton said he wishes there was no recount but has no intention of asking Pérez to end it.

“I think it’s a tremendous inconvenience, but you can’t tell people who run for office what to do,” Burton said. “Betty Yee is the Democratic nominee. I think there will come a time when he will see the votes aren’t there and will rally around the flag.”

Pérez filed papers with Secretary of State Debra Bowen on July 6 seeking hand recounts in all or parts of 15 counties. The tally began in Kern and Imperial counties last Friday, but by midday Thursday had yielded only a handful of votes for Pérez. Cutting short the $4,019-a-day Kern County recount, the campaign will move to the No. 3 county on its list – San Bernardino – starting Monday, costing about $7,900 a day. Pérez’s filing seeks hand recounts in 495 of the county’s 1,662 precincts, where he topped Yee by 10.2 percentage points, compared to a countywide advantage of 8 points.

“Keep it moving!” Pérez adviser Douglas Herman posted on Twitter. Skelton countered that Pérez has to change venues after a “spectacular lack of success” in Kern and Imperial counties.

Besides serving as the state’s chief financial officer, the controller oversees the state’s cash flow, runs the state payroll and sits on dozens of boards and commissions, including the powerful CalPERS board. Given the office’s powers, controller’s races have been among California’s most competitive statewide contests when there is no incumbent.

In 1994, Democrat Kathleen Connell won by 2 percentage points. In 2002, Democrat Steve Westly topped then-state Sen. Tom McClintock by three-tenths of a percent.

Swearengin, a top Republican recruit this year, joined the race shortly before the candidate filing deadline. Consultant Tim Clark said the long vote count and recount to determine who she will face in the fall has the triple benefit of helping Swearengin make up for her late entry into the race, making it difficult for Yee or Pérez to raise money, and potentially leaving Democrats divided heading into November.

“You have to consider this is creating some animosities within the party,” Clark said.

Curry said that is her concern, notwithstanding Democrats’ 15-point voter registration advantage and the expectation that Gov. Jerry Brown will win re-election by a large margin. “They see a weakness now, and we can’t do this,” Curry said.

Yet bitter primary battles rarely become general election defeats, even at the highest levels of politics. In 2007 and 2008, the months-long presidential primary fight between then-U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama was a constant storyline during the fall campaign. But Obama, with Clinton’s support, went on to defeat Sen. John McCain.

A Democrat will win the controller’s race in November, said Democratic political consultant Garry South. Four years ago, when free-spending Meg Whitman led the Republican ticket and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer was a top GOP target, Democrats still swept every office, South noted.

The main reason Pérez should end the recount, South said, is it looks bad and threatens to delay planning for the fall vote. Overseas and military ballots, for instance, go out in early September.

“The election’s over. And now you’re allowing one candidate after the fact, based on superior resources, to monkey around with the results? It can’t be allowed,” South said.

But Bauman said some Pérez critics were hypocrites ignoring how much Pérez has done for party causes and candidates. “All those Democrats criticizing him today sure were cheering him when he hit 55 in the Assembly,” he said of the 2012 election in which Democrats captured 55 seats for a supermajority in the Pérez-led Assembly.

Yet Bauman suggested that there will come a time when Pérez may have to call off the recount. If so, he “would have no problem” supporting Yee.

“It’s not easy to lose an election, and it’s not easy to prolong an election,” Bauman said. “I will say that his intent is not, and never has been, to try to drag this thing out but to figure out if there is a ‘there’ there and what to do next.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee