Secretary Of State’s Race One To Watch

With the governor’s race looking increasingly like a laugher, the contest for secretary of state this year may be an interesting one to watch. It will test some longstanding historical precedents and certain basic assumptions on the part of both major parties.

Incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson is a bright and decent guy, a moderate former state senator and newspaper publisher from Santa Cruz. He got there courtesy of an appointment in 2005 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, when Democratic then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley resigned. McPherson was the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor in 2002, losing to Cruz Bustamante in the Democratic sweep.

The Democratic nominee, moderate state Sen. Debra Bowen from Torrance, is a razor-sharp attorney and aggressive campaigner with an impressive background in legislation involving privacy and integrity-of-elections matters. She chairs the Senate Committee on Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments.

Although McPherson is one of only two statewide GOP officeholders, incumbency in the secretary of state’s job is no guarantee of success. For proof, McPherson can consult his Republican predecessor, Bill Jones, who served as the state’s chief elections official from 1995-2003 (barely winning in both ’94 and ’98).

Jones was the only statewide official to send a document containing his John Henry — the voter pamphlet — to every registered California voter in every statewide election over that time. But he finished a weak third in the 2002 Republican primary for governor with only 17 percent of the vote. As the sacrificial lamb against Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2004, Jones was annihilated, losing by 20 percentage points and 2.4 million votes.

Another factor to consider in this race is the “power” of appointed incumbency. Since 1964, interestingly, every single person appointed to statewide office lost in their attempt to win the seat outright.

In the summer of 1964, Gov. Pat Brown named former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate caused by the sudden death of Democratic Sen. Clair Engle. In November of that year, despite LBJ’s landslide victory (including in California), the high-profile Salinger got trounced by a retired tap dancer who had never run for office before, George Murphy.

In 1974, Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed state Sen. John Harmer lieutenant governor, in lieu of the resigned Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, who had gotten himself snagged in the Watergate scandal. Even though Harmer actually was already the Republican nominee for that office, having won the GOP primary earlier in the year, he was knocked off that fall by Mervyn Dymally, the first African American elected to partisan statewide office in California history.

Gov. George Deukmejian in 1989 appointed Tom Hayes, a perfectly competent professional numbers-cruncher, to the position of treasurer after the death of longtime treasurer and former Assembly speaker Jesse Unruh. Kathleen Brown crushed Hayes in 1990.

In 1991, newly sworn Gov. Pete Wilson tapped his friend and bland soul mate John Seymour, a state senator and former mayor of Anaheim, to assume Wilson’s seat in the U.S. Senate. Seymour was creamed in ’92 by Dianne Feinstein, who became the first woman from California to be sworn into the world’s most exclusive club.

In 2000, Gov. Gray Davis appointed respected former judge Harry Low insurance commissioner, replacing Republican Chuck Quackenbush, who resigned and skipped town one step ahead of impeachment. As Davis’s senior political adviser, I hoped Low would run in 2002 so we would have an Asian American on a Democratic ticket for the first time since 1990. But looking at the sorry history of appointed officials running for office in their own right, and the difficulty of raising money for such an obscure regulatory office, Low opted out.

Can McPherson escape this long trend of appointed incumbents taking the pipe? It probably depends on how actively Schwarzenegger campaigns for him, and whether a genuinely centrist Republicans — of the type we Democrats keep advising the other party they need to put up for office in this sky-blue state — can motivate base GOP voters to cast their ballots for him.

And what about Bowen? She has an advantage in being the only woman on either major-party ticket in a state where a majority of voters are woman. Also, there is a floating pool of about a million registered Republican women out there who regularly cross over for moderate Democrats (Bill Clinton, Davis, Feinstein) and even out-and-out liberals like Boxer when they have no women of their own to support.

Neither McPherson nor Bowen likely will be able to raise two nickels to rub together for this almost invisible state post, particularly under the $5,600 contribution limits that apply this time. Both likely will go into Election Day largely unknown — Brand X vs. Brand Y. So the race for secretary of state might well be the best bellwether this year as to the outcome in a contest between a generic moderate Democrat who happens to be a woman, and a generic moderate Republican who happens to be the incumbent.

As a Democrat, I say may the better woman win.