The Republican and Democratic candidates for California Secretary of State faced off in Berkeley last week, less than a month before the pair faces off again at the polls in a tight race for the job of the state’s top election officer.
At the June primary, candidates Alex Padilla, a Democratic state senator from Los Angeles, and Pete Peterson, the Republican head of a policy institute at Pepperdine, were only separated by 1 percentage point in their race to succeed termed-out Secretary of State Debra Bowen. In a Thursday evening debate at UC Berkeley’s International House, Peterson came out fighting and energetic, laying out his thoughts and plans on voter technology, records transparency and other issues.
“Some of you may be wondering how has a political outsider like me has received almost every newspaper endorsement in the state,” Peterson told a mixed crowd of about 100 students, community organization members and other Bay Area residents who filled about half the I-House auditorium seats to watch the debate. Despite being a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, Peterson argued, he has appealed to communities across the state because of his message that California “needs not just reformation, but transformation.” He promised to use technology “in a non-partisan way to achieve democracy.”
Peterson comes to the political sphere from his role as executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University in Southern California. He has made his lack of elected-office experience part of his campaign. Democrat Padilla, on the other had, repeatedly mentioned during the forum, moderated by KQED reporter John Myers and held by the ACLU California Voting Rights Project, his 15 years in public office as a current state senator in Los Angeles and previous office as president of the Los Angeles City Council.
The opponents held a friendly, quick, lively back-and-forth as they argued over issues that will let voters decide on November 4, 2014, who will be voted into the office that not only oversees elections, but tracks electronic filings, business and financial information and records, and maintains several registries and databases and other archived material.
Secretary of State Bowen, who last month publicly discussed her battle with depression, will see the end of her term through the fall election and the beginning of 2015. After Thursday’s debate ended, Peterson credited Bowen for staying engaged with voters and her staff despite her personal troubles, but said he was running because he “got fed up with how poorly the office was performing.”
Padilla and Peterson both supported rolling out a statewide voter registration database, known as VoteCal, by mid-2016 – something that was supposed to be available to the public 12 years ago, moderator Myers said. Padilla said he hoped to have the overdue product out “ahead of time and under budget.”
Padilla – who reiterated during the debate his humble beginnings and upbringing by immigrant parents who “taught me with hard work and good education anything is possible” – focused on incorporating more technology into the voting process from more online voter information to new election equipment. He said he would lobby for more state spending on election, and push for more federal dollars to support state and county programs.
Peterson also said he would use his technology skills from his academic background and examine how money is being spent at the Secretary of State Office. He emphasized making that information accessible and clear – to the point where an 8- or 10-year-old could understand the finances, he said. He also vowed to make business records more accessible and add more detailed questions on state forms, along with tracking more of the state’s business landscape.
Padilla countered that the role of Secretary of State is not just to track businesses, but to also make sure companies, startups and small business stay in California and grow here. He said this starts with giving businesses an improved online registration system that saves time and money.
Padilla said he has visited 52 of the state’s 58 counties so far, as he works to forge a partnership between Sacramento and county election agencies. He said the Secretary of State gives direction to the county registrars and election offices.
Peterson agreed. “It may sound weird coming from a Republican,” he said, but “we do need to centralize a bunch of stuff.” He called for a statewide system to coordinate mailing election materials through the U.S. Postal Service, equal funding for different counties to conduct more streamlined elections – including up-to-date election equipment, such as touchscreens – and more online voter and election information.
Padilla, Peterson was quick to point out, is outspending his opponent eight to one. In the filing period between the start of the year and the end of September, Peterson has a balance of more than $52,500 in campaign contributions, compared to Padilla’s roughly $410,000, according to recent state records. Many of Padilla’s heavy-hitters are unions such as SEIU Local 6434 and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, two of several contributors who gave $13,600 apiece.
Despite the fundraising discrepancy, in the June primary held throughout the state, Padilla earned 30 percent of the vote, while Peterson followed closely behind at 29 percent. The disgraced state Sen. Leland Yee, who had been the presumed front-runner, D-San Francisco, managed to pull in 10 percent of the vote even after stepping out of the race following his late March arrest and indictment for allegedly taking money for votes and participating in gun trafficking, among other serious allegations following an FBI sting operation.
In Alameda County, during the June primary, Padilla won by a large margin, with 41 percent of the vote going to Padilla and 16 percent to Peterson. But after Thursday’s debate, some Democrats who have mostly stuck to party lines said they were questioning which candidate to select.
Lee Aurich, a 62-year-old Oakland resident and longtime member of the League of Women Voters (whose membership includes men and women) said he has never voted for a Republican, but that he just might in this fall’s Secretary of State race. Aurich said he was impressed with Peterson’s “passion” and what Aurich regarded as the candidate’s sharp contrast to other Republicans who discourage votes from minority groups, who tend to vote Democratic. No matter how the election finishes, Aurich said either candidate would bring significant improvements to the current office.
Andre Luu, an 18-year-old UC Berkeley political science and anthropology student, who was part of the debate audience, said he is a Democratic supporter but finds Peterson has “more of a connection to California citizens in general, instead of politicians.”
UC Berkeley political science major Paul Iskajyan, also 18, said after the debate that he was surprised to find Peterson, a Republican, “so interested in increasing voter rights.” He said that under Peterson, there is “a bigger chance for change.” The college freshman, who voted in his first election this past June in his hometown of Los Angeles, said Padilla has more of an “insider” feel after his many years in the state senate and other political groups. “He tends to go with party lines,” Iskajyan said.