The Republican party's best chance to win a statewide office in California for the first time since 2006 all started with a check for $800. Pete Peterson’s wife Gina is graphic designer in Santa Monica who owns her own business, a limited liability company. Last year, she was getting ready to pay her company's annual $800 licensing tax to the secretary of state’s office, which oversees business licensing. Only in California are LLCs taxed so much just to keep a license. In Delaware, the annual tax is just $300, and in Missouri, it’s just a one-time $50 free. As she was writing the check, Gina looked at Peterson and said, “I don’t know where this money goes.”
The issue still gets Pete Peterson going. The money is ostensibly going to update the state’s business licensing website, but he says there are no signs that the site is any closer to allowing businesses to register with the state of California online. Next door in Nevada, he points out, it’s easy and simple to file online. Why is the home of Silicon Valley and the technology boom so far behind? And why are LLCs specifically required to pay such a hefty tax, every year?
Peterson decided to change that by running for secretary of state himself, and in the latest poll, he’s ahead by 13 points. The survey of 1,000 registered California voters, conducted by Field Research, found that 30 percent support Peterson, while his closest opponent, Democratic state senator Alex Padilla, polled at 17 percent. California uses a “jungle primary” system, whereby all declared candidates in all parties face off against each other. The top two vote-getters on primary day (that’s June 3 this year) advance to the general election in November.
Peterson’s lead is a big deal, he says, but he notes he’s not the only Republican statewide candidate in a strong position. Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, a GOP candidate for state controller, also leads her Democratic opponents in the latest Field poll, with 28 percent support. At the top of the ticket, the GOP’s faring worse. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the top Republican challenger, is trailing Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown badly, and Brown’s approval rating is solidly positive.
The GOP’s California comeback won’t come via the governor’s race, at least not this year, but Peterson hopes his race down-ballot will play a role in reenergizing and rebranding the party. Republicans are getting a big help from Democrats in Sacramento who typify what Peterson calls a “culture of corruption.”
Take the secretary of state’s race, for example, where the leading candidate was Democratic state senator Leland Yee of San Francisco. But on March 26, Yee was arrested by the FBI for political corruption and gun trafficking. The story is a doozy, even for California. Yee, a staunch gun-control advocate, is accused of setting up a deal to illegally purchase $2.5 million worth of automatic weapons from a militant Muslim group in the Philippines to sell them to what turned out to be an undercover FBI operation. Yee and his campaign also accepted bribes from that operation to call in political favors. He's since been suspended by the state senate and has dropped out of the secretary of state's race. And's that's provided the opening for Peterson.
Yee is actually the third current Democratic senator under suspension. In January Roderick Wright of Los Angeles was convicted on charges of voter fraud and perjury, and in February, a federal grand jury indicted Ronald Montebello on 24 felony counts, including bribery. As Peterson likes to say, that’s 10 percent of the Democratic caucus facing criminal charges.
That may explain why Peterson’s top opponent isn’t ahead in the polls. In California, candidates are identified on the ballot not only by their party affiliation but by their occupation. Next to Democrat Alex Padilla’s name is this black mark: “state senator.”
“That used to be a way of showing that the candidate had experience,” Peterson says. “Now, it’s more of a millstone.”
Peterson is hoping to harness what he says is an increasing feeling around the state that one-party rule by Democrats in Sacramento has given corrupt politicians the go-ahead. “I’m framing myself as an outsider,” he says.
Most voters don’t believe Peterson when he tells them that being the secretary of state for California would be his “dream job.” I find it hard to believe myself when Peterson, the executive director of a civic non-profit at Pepperdine University, first tells me so in our phone interview. But the more he talks about his passion for civic engagement—like I said, hard to believe—the more plausible it sounds.
A lifelong Republican, Peterson had worked in direct-mail marketing in his native New Jersey for 12 years when he began spending his free time volunteering for campaigns. In 2005, he and his wife moved back to her home state of California so he could enroll at Pepperdine for a masters degree in public policy. After graduating, he was asked to stay at Pepperdine to head up a civic organization called Common Sense California, which later became the Davenport Institute. The institute trains public officials from across the country to learn how to better engage citizens in public life and policymaking.
That’s the spirit Peterson says he wants to bring to the secretary of state’s office. As the state’s chief elections officer, he would have purview over the ballot initiative process, which he says doesn’t do enough to educate voters about the costs and benefits of the several initiatives Californians vote on each election. Peterson cites a recent study by Pew that ranked California 49th among voter turnout, voter registration rates, and other election metrics. Asked about the push for voter identification being supported by Republican secretaries of state in other states, Peterson downplays its significance.
“I’m not running on voter ID,” he says. “I’m not pushing it.” Peterson says in California, the GOP is plagued by the perception, largely deserved, as the party of old white guys uninterested in getting more people involved in the political process.
“I want the Republican party to be seen as a party of informed citizenship, not as a party of roadblocks,” he says. He also says the party has a “Grover Norquist problem” with its focus on shrinking government “small enough to down it in a bathtub,” as the anti-tax crusader has said. Peterson said that’s the wrong way for Republicans, who ought to argue for “responsive and transparent government” as opposed to the Democratic model that he says is bound up by special interests.
“I think we should be talking about accountability,” he says. With the stench of corruption emanating from Sacramento, such a platform could seize the political moment while reviving the California GOP’s reformist brand. A double-digit lead for a statewide candidate isn’t a bad way to start.