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Debra J. Saunders
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Peterson or Sacramento Business as Usual

Comment

"Yeah, I have an 'R' next to my name," California secretary of state hopeful Pete Peterson shrugged when addressing the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board Monday. In a state where a modest 28 percent of registered voters are Republicans, Peterson's GOP affiliation isn't exactly a big draw. And it may not mean much to learn that his day job is executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership. But then, Peterson winked, his rival, Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla, has a title that may turn off some voters, as well. Quoth Peterson: "He's got 'state senator' next to his name."

There are 40 state Senate seats in Sacramento. One seat opened up Monday when Rod Wright, a Los Angeles County Democrat, resigned — nine months after a jury convicted him of felony perjury. Federal prosecutors have filed criminal corruption charges against two other Democratic state senators, who have pleaded not guilty. In February, the feds charged Ron Calderon with corruption. In March, federal prosecutors issued a criminal complaint against Leland Yee on charges of corruption and arms trafficking. (To my practiced eye, the arms charges seem rather weak.)

In March, with more than 10 percent of its Democratic caucus looking at jail time, the Senate voted 28-1 to suspend the three lawmakers. By suspending but not expelling the trio, the Senate allowed all three to collect their $95,291 salaries without fulfilling their duties.

When I asked Padilla about keeping three — now two — nonworking senators on the payroll, he replied, "I have called on them personally to resign." If that standard seems good to you, vote for Padilla.

Or am I unfair to the Democratic senator? He is, after all, an effective lawmaker; he is not his brother lawmakers' keeper. To get some perspective on the race, I called Dan Schnur, the former GOP strategist who ran for secretary of state as an independent. (Schnur placed fourth in a crowded field.) What does Schnur think of the candidates? "It may be the only campaign for statewide office in which the voters truly can't make a bad choice. They're both very impressive. They'll both be very effective secretaries of state, albeit in very different ways," Schnur told me. He would not say on the record for whom he will vote, but he would say both men are up to the job.

Both candidates say they want to speed up business filings and ramp up the secretary of state's dysfunctional databases for campaign donations and spending.

Peterson talks about working with the nonpartisan group MapLight to improve the system. Padilla told the Chronicle that the site may not comply with disability law.

Padilla authored a bill that would allow Californians to register to vote on Election Day starting in 2016. He also sponsored a bill to allow registrars to count late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day. Peterson supports it. Padilla tries to tie Peterson to out-of-state Republicans who support voter ID laws to prevent fraud, but it's not a charge that sticks. Peterson contends that California's problem is not illegal voting but that "we don't have enough people voting legally."

In the June primary, only 1 in 4 registered voters turned out — a record low. Both Peterson and Padilla blame Californians' lack of civic engagement.

Over the years, do-gooders have tweaked the system — allowing voting by mail, early voting and handy registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles — to improve participation. I asked Peterson and Padilla: Why is it that the state keeps passing laws to make it easier to register and more convenient to vote and still voter participation continues to decline in nonpresidential years? Neither had a good answer.

Me, I would rather see more quality voting than quantity. In the primary, Leland Yee of indictment fame placed third in the secretary of state race, even though he had lawyered up and bowed out of the race in March. More than 380,000 Californians voted for him. (Termed-out Secretary of State Debra Bowen said Yee withdrew too late for her to take his name off the ballot.)

I wish Peterson talked more like a Republican. He talks about removing "structural hurdles" for voters, while Padilla says he wants to enhance "the convenience and accessibility" of voting. I look at Yee's getting 9.4 percent of the vote and don't see voting as too difficult at all. Voting is work. Citizens have a responsibility to be informed; when they aren't, they elect unworthy candidates.

Padilla has introduced legislation to ban single-use plastic bags. It is one of those nanny-state laws with which Sacramento tells you how to live. But when it comes to policing his own house and fellow lawmakers want to use their offices to work on their personal criminal defense strategies with full pay, he can only say that he asked them to resign. If voters elect Padilla, as they probably will, Sacramento will get the message: Don't ever change.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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