Secretary of State Debra Bowen was in the office Monday, two days after her struggles with depression became public, making clear that she intends to oversee November balloting and finish out her term as California’s chief elections officer.
“I feel great today,” Bowen said. “I’ll continue to make sure that all the big projects are where they should be. No major decision gets made without my input.”
Bowen said she has received “so many supportive messages” since the Los Angeles Times reported in Saturday’s editions on Bowen tearfully describing a “debilitating” flare-up of the depression that she has battled for decades. The Times also reported several tax liens since 2009 against Bowen alone or with her husband, the last of which, he said, was paid off Friday.
There have been no calls for the Democrat to leave the post she first won in 2006 following 14 years in the Legislature. Bowen, who will be forced out by term limits at the end of the year, insisted that she can continue to do her job, whether it’s in the office or from the mobile home she recently moved to. She said a medical leave isn’t necessary. Colleagues and election officials have rallied to her side.
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“For me, I’ve never let depression be the winner. I wouldn’t be where I am if I had. I keep going,” Bowen, 58, said Monday. “I know if I keep going I will eventually feel like myself again.”
“I am taking care of myself,” Bowen added. “This isn’t different than diabetes or anything else. Everybody has setbacks, everybody has challenges.”
In recent years, Bowen’s office has come under criticism for lackluster performance in various areas. Its aging campaign-finance disclosure system, Cal-Access, periodically grinds to a halt. Businesses have complained about filing delays. And an April report by The Pew Charitable Trusts ranked California 49th in election administration, citing its high rate of unreturned mail ballots and other factors.
The Nov. 4 election is eight weeks from today and preparations are in full swing. Ballots to overseas voters began going out last week and state voter information guides are scheduled to be mailed at the end of the month.
Under California’s decentralized system of holding elections, much of the heavy lifting to conduct the fall ballot already has shifted from Bowen’s office and its 550 full-time employees to the 58 county election offices, which hire poll workers, line up polling places and print ballots.
“The state, just like the counties, does have a very hardworking staff. And a lot of that daily work in the weeds just moves forward,” said Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials. Dean C. Logan, the registrar-recorder/county clerk in Los Angeles County, the state’s largest, echoed those sentiments, saying he does not anticipate that Bowen’s struggles will have any effect on the conduct of the election.
Longtime colleagues of Bowen said Monday they had no idea of Bowen’s struggles. “I didn’t have a clue,” said Tony Miller, a former top aide to Bowen and other secretaries of state before he retired in 2010. “She had a very strong physical presence. She attended staff meetings. She seemed to be totally engaged.”
Kelley said he had a lengthy conversation with Bowen at the clerks association’s July conference. “She seemed in good spirits,” he said.
Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, also said she did not know of Bowen’s illness. Alexander credited her with introducing online voter registration in time for the November 2012 election and making it available in 10 languages. The office also introduced an online polling place search tool before the June primary election.
“The fact is she’s been suffering from health challenges for some time now and, despite that, has been able to carry out her duties competently and has been able to for some time,” Alexander said.
California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones noted that he worked for former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who, while in office in 1995, announced that she had Parkinson’s disease.
“Janet said, as I believe Debra has said, ‘Look, I’ve got this illness, I am doing everything I can to manage it. I believe I can continue to perform my office,’ ” Jones said. “I believe that Debra is addressing it in a public and thoughtful and straightforward way.”
Other California officials have continued to serve amid illness, such as the late lawmakers Dave Cox, Jenny Oropeza and Nell Soto. The late state Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, took a medical leave during the final months of her term. State law offers few ways for statewide elected officials to be relieved of their duties.
On Monday, Pete Peterson, a Republican who is seeking the office and has been critical of Bowen’s tenure, said, “I pray she’s getting the help she needs.” He said he has no opinion on whether Bowen should step down.
“But this is a full-time job. I hope we don’t lose sight of the fact that this office has not been performing well, not just for voters but for businesses, whatever the reason might be,” he said.
Bowen brushed off the criticism of her office as “politics.” As for working from home some days, “For me, work is at my office, at home, on the phone, on my Blackberry,” she said. “Work is where I am.”
Former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson served with Bowen in the Legislature before being appointed in 2005 to serve out the term of former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who resigned amid allegations that he misused federal funds, accepted tainted political donations and verbally abused employees. McPherson lost his re-election to Bowen the following year.
“I wish her only the best,” McPherson said, declining to comment on Bowen’s time away from the office. “You need to take care of yourself, too.”