Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Debra Bowen should have revealed depression earlier

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Eight years ago, a state legislator named Debra Bowen was elected secretary of state, promising to use her expertise in technology to modernize what had been a ministerial backwater of California government.

One of Bowen’s early acts in office was to virtually end a shift to touch-screen voting that her predecessors had begun, citing concerns about security.

It made her a heroine to those on the political left, who had become paranoid about manipulating voting results, and earned her a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award.

Seemingly, Bowen could look ahead to a bright future in California politics, using her office as a springboard to bigger and better things.

But it didn’t happen. After making that initial splash, Bowen retreated from the public stage. And if anything, the Secretary of State’s Office – which oversees elections and maintains public records – regressed.

There was no further action on modernizing and standardizing California’s voting systems, and the business filing system degenerated into archaic gridlock while Bowen was shielded by a phalanx of loyal aides.

She resurfaced briefly in 2011 to make a losing bid for a vacant congressional seat in coastal Los Angeles County, then retreated once again and will be forced out of office this year by term limits.

When four candidates to succeed her – two Democrats, one Republican and one independent – debated in Sacramento in April, they all agreed that the office needed an overhaul.

“All four of us on the stage as well as other candidates, I believe, would address the issues … of the Secretary of State’s Office more aggressively, more innovatively than they’ve been done in many years,” independent Dan Schnur said.

Schnur said that when he chaired the Fair Political Practices Commission, he tried to interest Bowen in improving the state’s substandard campaign finance reporting system, but she rebuffed him.

Over the weekend, we may have learned why Bowen flamed out so quickly. The Los Angeles Times, in a lengthy article, described Bowen’s decades-long struggle with chronic depression.

Bowen has moved out of the home she has shared with her husband, a high-ranking state official, and is living in a shabby mobile home.

“I have suffered from depression since I was in college, and I am having a more difficult episode right now,” Bowen, 58, told the Times. “It’s something we haven’t talked about because there is such a stigma.”

One can sympathize with Bowen’s illness, certainly, but if it was as debilitating as depicted, she should have owned up to it much earlier.

She won the office on a promise to improve its performance, but by many measures it has regressed. If she was incapable of doing her job, as the article implies, she should have done the honorable thing and resigned in favor of someone who could do it.

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