It’s still the first half of 2013, and we already have a pretty good idea who the most important political candidate of next year’s California statewide elections will be.
It’s not Governor Brown. Or any of the other bigger names on down-ballot races running for re-election. Indeed, it’s a pretty safe bet that the most important candidate of 2014 won’t win.
His name is Pete Peterson, and he’s a Republican running for California Secretary of State. But what’s intriguing about Peterson – and why I hope that he gets a ton of public and media attention – is that he represents one of the most powerful ideas in California, and in governance circles.
That idea is civic engagement. To many, that sounds like a buzzword, with no fixed meaning. But it really represents a new approach to governance that starts by making people part of actual decision-making. Perhaps the best known of civic engagement processes is participatory budgeting, used often by local governments who want the public to assist them in how they spend money.
Peterson provides a good an example of what authentic, legitimate civic engagement is on the website of Pepperdine’s Davenport Institute. There are four points: 1. Real civic engagement incorporates the results of the process into actual decision-making (the decisions people make in a process like participatory budgeting must really count for something). 2. Presenting unbiased information to participants. 3. Putting together a representative and diverse group of participants. 4. Facilitating discussions in the engagement process in an inclusive way, so that everyone participates.
This may sound bland and obvious, but it isn’t. Engagement is hard work, and involves power sharing between the people and officials that can be uncomfortable for both sides. What distinguishes Peterson is that he understands, as deeply as anyone in California, the theory and practice of engagement.
It’s not much of a stretch then to see the Secretary of State’s office as the natural headquarters for remaking governance in California around models of legitimate civic engagement. So having someone from the civic engagement world run for that office makes sense. Making that office a platform for the engagement movement makes more sense than making it a temporary for an ambitious politician who wants to be better known and raise more money for higher office.
In all ways except his party affiliation, Peterson is the perfect candidate for this mission. He has the respect of people who do this work around the state. And he’s also better than anyone I’ve managed to find in California in explaining what engagement is in English (this is a rare skill, given the love of jargon among those who do engagement work). He also focuses his work on teaching people in and out of government how to do authentic civic engagement.
I don’t have any great hope that Pete will win. He’s a Republican, after all, in a Democratic state. And as a resident of Santa Monica, he’s not a natural fit with a California Republican Party with an inland California personality. (It’s funny how folks in the civic engagement movement, which has more than its share of liberally minded people, are shocked when they learn Pete is a Republican. Because, you know, he’s so reasonable).
There are risks associated with Peterson’s candidacy. I wonder if running for office sends a mixed message, since one of the points of the engagement movement is that citizen participation should not be limited to elections but should be a constant. The engagement movement also could be hurt if Peterson makes bad mistakes or runs a totally conventional campaign. But Peterson’s announcement statement and his recent piece at Fox & Hounds Daily suggest that his campaign is fundamentally about engagement and transforming how California is governed. I expect that Pete will use his campaign to model the kind of engagement he seeks.
Even if you’re a fan of one of the other candidates for the office or have absolutely zero intention of voting for Peterson, you still should pay close attention to him and his campaign. California politics is full of nonsense that you’d be better off forgetting. But if you watch and listen to Peterson, you’re guaranteed to learn a lot.