Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Having a candidate as village scold can only add drama to the show

Campaigns for California secretary of state probably don’t come to mind when you think of riveting political races.

Sure, there was the 1974 donnybrook in which March Fong Eu declared she wasn’t a one-tissue candidate, a reference to her legislation banning pay public toilets, a landmark if ever there was one.

That aberration aside, the secretary of state race will be one of the more intriguing campaigns in the 2014 election season. Likely candidates include a Common Cause reformer, two Democratic state senators who have significant bases from which to run, and perhaps a Republican academic.

Now, Dan Schnur, a former Republican communications and campaign operative turned academic who took a detour as chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, is on the verge of getting into the race.

Past secretaries of state have been tired politicians seeking sinecures, or ambitious pols who think they can use it to seek some grander position. The post rarely has been held by someone who actually aspires to be the state’s chief election officer, improve voter access and expand disclosure of campaign money.

Although Schnur has not yet taken out candidate papers, he is talking about key issues: enhancing the rickety website on which the public can view campaign donations and spending, instilling in young people the need to vote, and changing the law so that the office itself is nonpartisan.

The secretary of state has limited power to enforce election law. But Schnur believes he could use the bully pulpit to cajole politicians into restricting their fundraising and opening the process. Secretary of state as village scold.

“The umpire shouldn’t wear a Giants or a Dodgers jersey,” Schnur said over lunch at the Red Rabbit restaurant in midtown Sacramento. “The person overseeing elections shouldn’t be beholden to any party.”

Schnur’s Republican pedigree includes work for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election, George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign, Gov. Pete Wilson’s administration, and John McCain’s 2000 Straight Talk Express campaign.

He quit the GOP after leaving the Fair Political Practices Commission in 2011, and intends to run as a no-party-preference candidate. He’d be the first serious candidate to seek statewide office under California’s top-two primary system without stating a party preference. He won’t be the last.

The latest count shows people who register as “decline to state” account for 20.9 percent of the electorate, up from 17.9 percent in 2005. Republican registration continues to tank, down to 28.9 percent from 34.5 percent in 2005.

The campaign for secretary of state will take place as a corruption investigation proceeds into state Sen. Ron Calderon, the Montebello Democrat whose offices were searched by the FBI in June. If there are indictments, public attention could help an outsider’s campaign that focuses on overhauling the political system.

Schnur’s opponents include Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Each will be able to raise significant sums of money.

Another Democrat, Derek Cressman, is the former head of California Common Cause. Like Schnur, Cressman will talk about the need to clean up Sacramento. Unlike Cressman, Schnur will have some explaining to do in this Democratic state.

He supported the anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187 in 1994, when he was Wilson’s communications director. His stand has changed. But for some voters, particularly Latinos, his association with Wilson, 187’s most prominent backer, will be a problem.

Schnur spent parts of 2010 and 2011 as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Fair Political Practices Commission chair, pushing for more disclosure by otherwise opaque nonprofit corporations.

He upset insiders by posting requests for investigations, no matter how half-baked, into campaign violations on the FPPC’s website, rather than waiting until the investigations were final. His successor, Ann Ravel, reversed that policy.

“Coming back to Sacramento after having been outside state government, I was appalled,” he said. “Fundraising has always been an important component of politics. But it had never been so pervasive and overwhelming and constant.”

For most of the past decade, Schnur has been teaching politics, first at UC Berkeley and now at USC. As any student of politics knows, would-be reformers cannot make change without winning. That takes money.

Debra Bowen, the termed-out incumbent, spent $1.5 million on her first election in 2006. She also had Democratic Party backing. Lacking a party apparatus, Schnur might need three times what Bowen’s raised, ironic given that he will campaign against money in politics.

No doubt, Schnur hopes his familiarity with people in my line of work will help his campaign, although we have a funny way of turning on candidates. A dial-a-quote guy, he is ready with quips and commentary, especially in campaign season, never more so than during the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis.

For The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, he went snarky on Davis: “He went from angry to smarmy without ever stopping at happy.”

After a court temporarily delayed the recall, he provide USA Today with this Schnurism: “For a minute there, before the court decision, we came perilously close to having a normal election. But we dodged that bullet.”

Schnur’s quotes and opinion articles have appeared in The Bee no fewer than 400 times over decades; 600-plus times in the San Francisco Chronicle; and more than 1,000 times in the Los Angeles Times. In his current position as director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, he helps oversee a poll done in collaboration with the L.A. Times.

I met Schnur 20 years ago, when he was Wilson’s spokesman. I’m under no illusion that he’d like editorial board endorsements from newspapers, including The Bee. Padilla and the others will have something to say about that.

Meanwhile, we political junkies wait for the 2014 curtain to rise. There won’t be a U.S. Senate race in 2014. Nor are there obvious challengers to Attorney General Kamala Harris or Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Republicans have no major candidate to run against Gov. Jerry Brown.

Secretary of state races never have been scintillating. But here’s to hoping that changes. Having a candidate running to be the scold in our village can only add drama to the show.