The State Worker

The State Worker: CalPERS board candidate not discouraged by long odds

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

Outmanned and outspent so far, an honest assessment of state scientist David Miller’s campaign for a CalPERS administrative board seat would say he’s a long shot.

The president of the tiny state scientists’ union has been in this position before, twice losing bids to sit on the 13-member panel that oversees California’s $300 billion public pension system.

So why will the third time be different?

“I’m the most qualified candidate,” said Miller, a biochemist and University of Pittsburgh MBA, “and the voters want to see a change that moves CalPERS forward.”

Miller is running for the board’s state employee seat. About 255,000 ballots went out to state members, who have until Sept. 29 to return them. Recent history indicates between 10 percent and 15 percent will.

The winner will sit atop a $300 billion institution with the heft to shake financial markets. The board can tell government employers – including the state – how much they must pay into the pension system. It’s an exclusive club: Besides other elected members, political appointees and the state’s treasurer and controller have board seats.

Miller’s main opponent, state tax analyst Theresa Taylor, enjoys the backing of a $225,000 independent campaign committee launched by her union, the mammoth SEIU Local 1000. Taylor’s campaign also has taken in $68,600 from several unions.

By comparison, Miller is running on a frayed-shoestring budget. There’s no independent committee backing him. Contributions from his union, California Association of Professional Scientists, the state engineers’ union and retired public-employees organization total $20,500.

But Miller, 54, says that money doesn’t matter. He figures that when voters read his candidate statement (which starts with, “CalPERS is under attack!”) and compare it to Taylor’s (she touts her financial analysis skills) that they’ll be won over. He’s also using social media and union networking to mount a grass-roots campaign statewide, he said.

J.J. Jelincic, a board member who has won two elections, agreed that money doesn’t matter as much in CalPERS elections because candidates can’t target their advertising to a district, and they don’t even know where their constituents live.

“That’s why these are really union endorsement races,” Jelincic said.

Unions know where their members live and work, and the money spent on member communications isn’t subject to disclosure. So CalPERS candidates must rely on labor infrastructure to bolster their campaigns.

The state scientists union has about 3,000 members plus about 13,000 covered by the state engineers union. Local 1000 represents 95,000 state workers and has a well-oiled political machine fueled by a corps of trained activists.

“Miller’s at a disadvantage because he’s from a small union,” Jelincic said.

Maybe so. But long odds don’t discourage Miller. He’s been here before.

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