A Bad Choice for Secretary of State

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Derek Cressman wants to be Secretary of State.  His announcement June 18 shows exactly why he should not be elected.  Like too many Secretaries of State across the country, he would corrupt this office were he to win.

Cressman is a self proclaimed “political reformer,” formerly with Common Cause.  In his announcement he said his priorities “include challenging Citizens United and limiting money in politics.”  But people like Cressman are hypocrites when it comes to limiting political money; they don’t want to limit all money, just money that they don’t approve of, as he makes clear with this statement: “We need real leadership to limit the role corporations and big-money special interests play in our elections.”

But in fact, the “big money” in California elections is not corporate; it is public employee unions.  The California Teachers Association is the number one political spender in California having spent more than $150 million on California campaigns in the past decade. According the California Fair Political Practices Commission, “The CTA alone has spent more money in California politics than Chevron, AT&T, Philip Morris and Western States Petroleum Association combined.”

Of course you rarely hear a whimper out of Cressman and Common Cause over that fact, because they like union money; it is spent to further their political goals, so it is just fine.  It is money from corporations that does not further their goals they want to stop.

That’s why Cressman attacked the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in his announcement; it has become the Great Satan for leftwing campaign reformers because it allows corporations to spend directly from their treasuries on federal elections.  However, the California Secretary of State has nothing to do with Citizens United; he or she does not sit on the Supreme Court and this is a federal court ruling that has no impact on California law.  But it is a convenient target for the anti-business left that has peddled the story that Citizens United opened the doors to huge corporate spending in 2012.  As Matt Bai pointed out in the New York Times, the ruling had little practical effect because the 2012 Super PACs were funded by wealthy conservative activists, not corporations.  And it has had no effect in California where direct corporate spending has always been legal.

But the fact Cressman attacks corporate spending shows that he wants to be an ideological Secretary of State, using the powers of that office against his political adversaries.  That is exactly what is wrong with a partisan elected Secretary of State with a political agenda.  In 2012 in Ohio, Jon Husted, the Republican Secretary of State, tried to reduce early voting hours in Democratic counties in a blatant attempt to reduce black voting and help Mitt Romney carry the state.  Not only did the courts strike him down, angry African American voters came out in droves to sink the Romney presidential hopes in that crucial state.

California has not had Secretaries of State who have tried to politically corrupt the office as Husted did in Ohio or Cressman would like to do in California.  The office has been run by competent professionals and generally our elections go off without a hitch.  It is also important to note that the California Secretary of State is an overseer of both campaign spending and elections, not the principal agency.  Elections are conducted at the local level; campaign finance matters are the purview of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (on which I served from 1976 to 1981).  While a Secretary of State Cressman would like to spend his time going after political spending he does not approve of, fortunately the law does not give the Secretary of State such sweeping powers.  Were a Secretary of State Cressman to attempt such illegal activities, California courts would stop him.

But that will not happen; he will not be elected.  Two termed out legislators, Sens. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles) are likely to run and a Republican will probably make one of the top-two runoff spots, leaving the other spot for one of the two legislators.

The central problem with the Secretary of State right now is not in the administrative or regulation areas, it is in the disclosure area.  Cal Access, the Secretary of State’s campaign disclosure system, needs improvement and is very difficult to navigate.  Disclosure of campaign money is the most important function of this office and that needs improvement.  This is particularly true given the rise of independent expenditures, where the source of the money is often hard to determine.

So the next Secretary of State has a major job, making sure that political money is adequately disclosed so voters know before an election where it is coming from.  California does not need an ideological crusader like Cressman who would prohibit political money he does not like, a power no Secretary of State should ever have.

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