Republicans are looking around for a chance to snag one statewide office this fall, and most attention has focused on Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin running for Controller. But the GOP should really focus on Pete Peterson, their candidate for Secretary of State. He has a much better opportunity than Swearengin.
Peterson is the executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public and Civic Engagement, and has been campaigning on an agenda of reform for the Secretary of State’s office, which it badly needs. Swearengin is a well respected second term mayor of Fresno but she had a very bad break when Board of Equalization member Betty Yee nabbed the Democratic nod for Controller over former Assembly Speaker John Perez.
But the biggest difference between Peterson and Swearengin is that he will have his name and a personal message in the ballot pamphlet that goes out to 16 million voters, and Swearengin will not.
Swearengin’s campaign decided not to spend the $7,000 for a ballot statement. Her campaign manager told the Fresno Bee “We don’t believe that it gets read or has any impact. In the grand scheme of what matters and what doesn’t, we decided to let that one go.” This conclusion is simply not true. Experienced ballot measure campaigns can see a shift in public opinion when the ballot pamphlet begins arriving. The small percentage of Californians that actually votes want to be well informed, and they read the pamphlet fairly closely.
The proof of course is in the pudding. In 2010, Gavin Newsom paid for a ballot statement for Lieutenant Governor; he won. Bill Lockyer paid for a statement for Treasurer; he won. John Chiang paid for a statement for Controller; he won. Debra Bowen paid for a statement for Secretary of State; she won. Dave Jones paid for a statement for Insurance Commissioner; he won. Tom Torlakson paid for a statement Superintendent of Public Instruction; he won. These victorious candidates certainly would not agree that the ballot statement has “no impact.” The only winning candidate who did not buy a ballot statement was Kamala Harris, and she ran way behind the rest of the Democratic ticket and nearly lost to Republican Steve Cooley who did buy a statement.
And the 2014 primary made that point even more forcefully. Yee paid for a statement; Perez did not, and she beat him by 481 votes although he outspent her three to one. David Evans, another Republican candidate for Controller, raised no money at all and only had a one line ballot pamphlet statement. He got 850,000 votes and nearly made the runoff.
Swearingen’s campaign also said she had rejected the ballot statement because in order to run a statement you need to restrict your campaign spending to $8.1 million, and Swearingen thought that Perez might be her opponent and he might spend more than that. But there is no possibility that Swearengin is going to raise anywhere near $8 million. Her campaign spent $345,000 on the primary and had $70,000 in the bank for the general election.
There is also another reason why Peterson has a better chance of winning than Swearengin; his opponent. Swearingen is running for against Yee who has a background in budget matters. It is hard case to make that Fresno mayor makes you a more credible candidate for Controller than a member of the State Board of Equalization. Peterson, on the other hand, is running against Democratic State Senator Alex Padilla, who is termed out of office this year and looking for a way to stay on the public payroll.
Issues do count, and Peterson has very real issues to talk about. The Secretary of State’s office is a mess. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized over how poorly it is run by current incumbent Debra Bowen (herself a former State Senator) noting that it is all but impossible to trace campaign contributions because of a poor and inadequate campaign finance portal. Getting election results now takes longer in California than in third world banana republics, and all through the long count in the Controller’s primary the Secretary of State’s office could not report an accurate figure on uncounted ballots.
Peterson has zeroed in on these defects. That’s one reason why he was strongly supported by the Los Angeles Times in the primary. The Bay Area Newspaper Group (San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times) wrote in its July endorsement of Peterson: “He shows no signs of partisanship in his professional history or his campaign. As a consultant, he helps local officials use technology and the Internet to collaborate with constituents on policy decisions. This work is devoid of political agenda, and it’s exactly the skill set needed at the Secretary of State’s Office…. Padilla’s campaign contributions suggest he’s just another legislator who leverages his position financially to move up to the next office. That’s particularly inappropriate for the secretary of state, who must rise above partisanship and special interests.”
It may very well be impossible for any Republican to win a statewide office this fall. Jerry Brown may sweep all Democrats into office; the GOP brand may remain so toxic in California, especially to minorities, that winning is impossible. But given his likely newspaper support, and that all important ballot pamphlet statement, Pete Peterson has the best chance of anyone on the down ballot of breaking through to victory.