California Forum

Viewpoints: The wrong messenger, but the right message: Political reform is essential

At the conclusion of the movie “The Untouchables,” Eliot Ness reflects on his efforts to clean up corruption in Al Capone’s Chicago: “I have become what I have beheld, and I am content that I have done right.”

In my campaign for secretary of state, I did not succeed the way Kevin Costner’s Ness character did. A fourth-place finish, behind the preferred candidates of the two major political parties and an accused arms trafficker, is nothing to brag about. So I won’t.

But there are lessons from this campaign that I hope can be instructive to those who worry – as I do – that politics are broken and in dire need of repair.

The political ruling class, of which I was once a member and am now an observer, has grown increasingly fatalistic about the possibility of fixing these problems.

As I watched a generation of candidates either ignore the need for reform or address it in only a piecemeal manner, I gradually concluded that politics was too important to be left to the politicians. And that real change could only come from the outside.

Most Californians, unlike candidates for statewide office or readers of this newspaper’s opinion page, don’t devote a great deal of attention to politics. But they know intuitively that the system is failing them, that their voices are no longer being heard by their elected representatives.

The predictable result: an election last week in which less than one out of five voters even bothered to participate.

There are many factors that have led to this level of citizen disillusionment, but there are three in particular that motivated me to set aside my work as an educator and a reformer for this campaign. They are:

1) Hyper-partisanship. As politics become increasingly polarized, it becomes more difficult for our elected representatives to work across party lines. Redistricting reform and the top-two primary are helping to address this problem, but electing independents to state office will help create common ground on which the two parties can come together.

However, my campaign demonstrated conclusively that Californians will not modify their long-held voting habits without exceedingly good reason. A future candidate who is a more successful fundraiser and more talented campaigner than I will be better positioned to accomplish this goal. But without the benefit of more information available to them, most voters understandably opted for the familiar.

2) Out-of-control fundraising. The recent Capitol scandals highlighted the pay-to-play mentality that poisons our politics at every level. Supreme Court rulings make it clear that the amount of money spent on campaigns will continue to spiral upward for the foreseeable future. So weakening the link between political giving and government action is the first critical step toward restoring sanity to this never-ending fundraising frenzy.

Versions of my proposal to ban fundraising while the Legislature is in session are being considered in the state Senate. They are less comprehensive than my plan, but represent an important step forward. Incoming Senate leader Kevin de León understands the need to restore public confidence after these scandals. Hopefully, new Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins will figure it out before her members fall victim to similar problems.

3) Lack of participation. The most disillusioned Californians are the youngest ones. Very few of my students have their own super PACs, so it is understandable why the millennial generation votes in such small numbers. But these same young people volunteer their time at greater levels than any other generation in recent history, so it’s clear they are not rejecting civic engagement, but rather our brand of broken politics.

As important as the logistical improvements discussed above, our public schools must offer more than a single semester of civics education to help our next generation of leaders understand that our democracy belongs to them too.

I was an imperfect messenger, to say the least. Those who make their living through the maintenance of the current system found my own partisan past an easy target.

Others complained that these proposals were not within the authority of the secretary of state and therefore had no place in this campaign.

But if California’s chief elections officer is not the natural person to lead the fight to fix a broken system, it’s not clear to me who that leader should be. The governor and Legislature clearly have other priorities. The attorney general and Fair Political Practices Commission are charged with enforcing the law, not reforming it.

I hope that whoever wins in November – Alex Padilla or Pete Peterson – will decide that this is an appropriate role for the secretary of state. Regardless, I will continue to work along with my fellow citizens to clean up a corrupt Capitol and to prepare our young people for the challenges of leadership that will soon pass to them.