- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - Four candidates vying to be the next secretary of state offered competing visions on Wednesday for controlling political fundraising and how they would best improve access and transparency for California elections.

A recent Field Poll shows Republican Pete Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University, and state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, as the front-runners heading into the Sacramento Press Club debate.

Derek Cressman, a Democrat and a former leader of the advocacy group Common Cause, and Dan Schnur, a professor of politics at the University of Southern California and former state ethics watchdog chair running as an independent, also participated.

The race for the statewide office responsible for elections and campaign finance is magnified this year by recent ethics scandals in the Legislature. Democratic candidate Leland Yee, a state senator from San Francisco, dropped out of the race in March after he was arrested on federal corruption charges. In February, State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, was arrested on corruption charges in a separate case, and a lobbying firm was slapped with a record fine for giving illegal gifts and holding lavish fundraisers for politicians.

Against this backdrop, the candidates agreed that the Secretary of State’s office should make it easier for Californians to keep tabs on who is giving money to politicians. But they said they bring different skills to best bring about change.

Padilla, the only elected official still in the race, said his relationships with lawmakers and experience with the state budget make him the candidate best suited to get the money needed for reform and to push for policy change. Peterson said he is not an ideologue and would approach the position with the technical skills to manage records and a passion for promoting citizen participation.

“If there is one thing government needs to be bigger about, it is supporting and promoting civic engagement,” Peterson said.

Cressman touted himself as the candidate with managerial experience as a Common Cause vice president who has fought against the influence of big money in politics. Schnur said he would be the best advocate for political reform without partisan ties, despite his background as a Republican strategist before dropping his affiliation in 2011.

The candidates generally agreed on voting principles: No universal vote by mail and online voting; ballot materials in multiple languages; and no restrictions on voting hours or identification requirements adopted in other states.

“Democracy works best when the most number of people are participating,” Padilla said.

The candidates also differ on whether there should be a fundraising blackout period for lawmakers as a way to lessen the influence of money on the political process.

Padilla introduced SB1101, which passed a Senate committee Tuesday, to ban campaign fundraising for lawmakers during the last 100 days of the session and the week after it ends. Schnur said the ban should apply to the entire nine-month legislative session.

“No political reform is going to be the magic cure to all the ills of politics,” said Schnur, but separating campaign contributions from key votes is “the first, most important step.”

Peterson previously has agreed with banning fundraising while the Legislature is in session, but he said during Wednesday’s debate that he thought lawmakers and the special interest groups that donate the money would still find a way around it.

Cressman also doubted such a ban would be effective and instead has advocated for public financing of campaigns.

“We need to get the big money out of politics, not just reschedule it,” he said.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the June primary advance to the November general election regardless of political party under the state’s top-two primary system.

Yee and three other candidates will also appear on the ballot, including David Curtis of the Green Party, who criticized the Sacramento Press Club for not inviting him to the debate.

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