Pete Peterson: A Conservative Idealist, Winning in California

Amidst the general gloom about Republican electoral fortunes in California, past and present, came some good news last week: Pete Peterson, director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, is leading the race for Secretary of State by double digits. 

Moreover, Peterson was ahead even before rival State Sen. Leland Yee (D) was hit with federal charges of corruption and gun-running.

No one was more surprised than Peterson himself. His campaign, which he says has raised about $175,000 so far, had not done any polling yet. And yet he was not only ahead of the second-place contender, State Sen. Alex Padilla, by double digits, but he was also ahead of all other candidates combined. 

Peterson, whom I met Thursday at the Coffee Bean at the Malibu Country Mart, ascribes his poll strength to his relative outsider status.

"It's part of the advantage of not being a state senator," he says. "There's a strong desire among California voters to find qualified people to do the job who aren't necessarily in office already, and who aren't part of the rotation in Sacramento." 

Unlike his rivals, he says, and unlike term-limited incumbent Debra Bowen, he does not see the office of Secretary of State as a political sinecure, or as a stepping stone to higher political ambitions in the state.

Peterson is focused on the job itself. In many ways, it seems tailored to his qualifications. 

He has spent years working on ways to improve "civic engagement" in the state, working with government agencies and private companies to create and implement new ideas and technology that make participation in government easier. He sees the office of Secretary of State as a continuation of his passion for an active and accessible civic life.

In a year when other Californians are proposing the breakup of the state, he remains a believer in the public. 

"The problems in Bell," he says, referring to the notoriously corrupt municipality in Los Angeles County where several officials were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms, "began at the ballot." He points out that Bell's political class was able to win voter approval of structural changes that enabled later abuses partly due to low voter turnout. 

Peterson believes that Republicans can lead a new era of technology-driven reforms.

"The whole referendum system," he points out, "was invented by Republicans to free the state government from the grip of the railroads. We can use new reforms to free the state today from the unions, who control almost everything." 

As an example, he points out that California still has no statewide voter database, noting that the $45 million contract to build it has been awarded to CGI, the same company that built the Obamacare website. "I'd like to revisit that contract," he says. 

Peterson also wants to streamline the process for registering a small business with the Secretary of State's office, noting that most small business owners have no idea where their $800 annual franchise tax goes, and that the registration process suffers from frequent backlogs and delays.

Peterson believes that California's state government has done a poor job of harnessing local technological skill to make government more responsive, noting a recent Pew study that placed California 49th out of 50 states in election administration. 

He is also concerned about voter fraud--though he says photo ID is not his top priority. There are big problems long before a voter arrives at the polling place, he says, noting that California's absentee voter system is dysfunctional and that the signature-gathering process is rife with opportunities for fraud.

He predicts that he will be out-raised significantly, but Peterson says he believes he can win, partly because of anti-incumbent sentiment, and partly because he really wants this particular job. After the primary, he intends to endorse Padilla as the Democrats' candidate for Senate in 2018--the job, he says, that Padilla really wants. 

If he wins, Peterson believes he will be able to work with Democrats who, on present polling numbers, are likely to retain every other statewide office. 

"I think Gov. Jerry Brown would like my platform," he says. "After all, it's the one Brown himself ran on in '70, when he ran for Secretary of State on transparency," he adds wryly. 

Yet will a socially liberal state tolerate a conservative Republican? 

Peterson says that the Republican Party must be the "party of life," but that it is foolish to promise overturning Roe v. Wade. Instead, he says, Republicans should do more to encourage adoption and reduce the number of abortions. He voted for Proposition 8--the 2008 referendum defining marriage as between as a man and a woman--but says that gay marriage is now a fact of life in California, and agrees with aspects of the the Supreme Court's ruling on the issue last year.

Though speculation seems premature, Peterson knows that if he does win, he will face immense pressure to run for governor in 2018. 

Will he do it? "No way," he says. 

Undoubtedly, however, if Peterson does win statewide office as a Republican this November--an achievement that almost seemed impossible until just a few days ago--there will be plenty of people, both inside California and beyond, urging him to give higher office a chance.


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