Capitol Alert

Candidates for California elections chief tout experience

Republican Pete Peterson and Democrat Alex Padilla, the two candidates for California secretary of state, promised Thursday at a Sacramento forum to shake up a post that has been criticized for falling behind the times.

Padilla, a state senator from Los Angeles, and Peterson, the executive director of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University, topped an eight-candidate primary field to succeed Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat who is being forced out by term limits after two terms as the state’s chief elections officer.

Policy differences between Peterson and Padilla were in short supply during the amicable lunchtime candidate “conversation” hosted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, but each contended they possessed the better résumé to turn around the office.

The next secretary of state needs to do more to reverse a trend of sagging voter participation and registration rates, particularly among Latinos, Asians and the young, they said. Both called for speeding up the processing of business paperwork filings.

Peterson and Padilla voiced support for Senate Bill 29, a bill on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk that would allow election officials to count late-arriving mail ballots that had been postmarked by Election Day. And they said the office has to do a much better job making campaign-finance data available to the public.

“There are a lot of comparable ideas and priorities,” Padilla acknowledged afterward.

“Experience matters,” said Padilla, an MIT graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering who has spent the past eight years in the Senate. “That’s the big distinction between us. I think I’m in a better position to be an effective secretary of state from Day One.”

But Peterson, making his first run for state office, said he has a “unique background” of expertise in technology and civic engagement that would make him the better secretary of state. He also noted the speculation that Padilla might run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, if Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires.

“This office is not going to take a three-year commitment and then you’re looking up the chain,” he said. “You need to be focused on this office.”

Padilla’s campaign has raised much more money than Peterson’s. As of June 30, Padilla had almost $384,000 cash on hand after spending $2.1 million during the primary campaign. Since then, Padilla has raised $86,000. Peterson had $22,000 on hand as of June 30 and has collected $73,000 since then.

A Field Poll released this week, based on a late-August survey of 467 likely fall voters, found that Padilla had a 7-percentage-point lead over Peterson. Yet that was the smallest margin of any Democrat running statewide against a Republican, and 21 percent of likely voters were undecided, according to the survey.

The secretary of state should stay a partisan office, Padilla and Peterson said, rejecting a campaign proposal by former Fair Political Practices Chairman Dan Schnur, a Republican-turned-independent who finished fourth in the June primary.

Padilla noted that he served on the nonpartisan Los Angeles City Council and has led the League of California Cities and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, groups that include Republicans and Democrats.

Peterson also touted his bipartisan credentials, and mentioned the tenures of former GOP secretaries of state Bill Jones and Bruce McPherson. “This is something that Republicans actually do pretty well,” he said of the office.