Schnur to Voters for SoS: I’m an Independent Now


Dan SchnurThe last time we wrote about a race for California Secretary of State was, er, uh . . . never.

But with our old friend and Calbuzz contributor Dan Schnur stepping away from his cushy post at the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC to run as a non-partisan independent for the job that oversees elections and corporate records and collects campaign finance data, we feel compelled to offer some observations.

It’s worth paying attention to Schnur because no independent — known in California as a “Decline to State” —  has ever won statewide office in California** and he has at least a theoretical chance.

That’s because the field for the top-two primary already includes three Democrats – State Sens. Alex Padilla and Leland Yee and campaign finance reform advocate Derek Cressman — along with Republican Pete Peterson, head of a public policy institute at Pepperdine University.

Should Schnur raise enough money to be competitive (Padilla had $355,264 in the bank at the end of June, Yee had $299,220, Schnur had $0* but, we hear, may soon surpass his rivals), he could benefit from a split among the Democrats in the June open primary and, by appealing to the middle and right, pull off an historic victory in November. It’s a long shot in such a blue state. But not out of the question.

professor_irwin_coreyWhat, Are You Crazy? Still, the first question a rational person has to ask about this prospect: Is he nuts? To give up such a sweet deal in academia to scrape, bow and pander for a thankless statewide office that mostly gets attention when election returns don’t come in fast enough.

“I love what I do and feel like I’ve been able to make a difference by sending young people out into the world of politics and public service,” Schnur replied, when asked if he’s crazy. “But this is a logical extension of that work and a logical bully pulpit for reform.” (It’s also a fair point that he made the job at USC as attractive as it is today.)

Then too, it’s hard to set aside his long association with and abject defense of former Gov. Pete Wilson (known in Mexico as hijo de puta), his stint with cynical U.S. Sen. John McCain, and a couple of short flings with dilettantes Richard Riordan and Peter Ueberroth. Republicans, all.

True, Schnur has been a non-partisan college instructor and poll director for about a decade and he dropped his GOP affiliation a couple of years ago. He’s been known to associate and even befriend Democrats and liberals (gasp!). He’s not some partisan ideologue, which is why political reporters have come to rely on him for a snappy quote on damn near any subject (especially since he and our friend Garry South are perhaps California’s pre-eminent quotemeisters.)

As far as we can tell, Schnur is not on a mission to reduce voter participation among any sector of the population. In fact, he’s big on mail voting, wider participation and permanent absentee status. His polling at USC in conjunction with the LA Times was fair and balanced, even if his personal analysis sometimes betrayed a somewhat conservative world view. He strongly supports something Calbuzz has campaigned for: upgrading California’s web sites that gather and report campaign contributions and spending.

kayakerPaddle on the Left, Paddle on the Right As a Republican, Schnur leaned to the right on economic and security issues and to the left on social and cultural concerns. He’s been mostly a moderate. But has he really become a non-partisan independent? This is what he’ll have to prove to voters if he hopes to squeak through the June open primary and attract middle-of-the-road voters in November. If he’s branded as a lifelong Republican – which he was – he’s dead in the water.

His strategy is to portray himself as the only “honest broker” in the race. “If one candidate is talking about how to fix the broken system and the other candidates are part of that system, then any voter who is not completely satisfied with politics in California has a fairly easy choice to make,” he told Calbuzz.

The centerpiece of his campaign right now is something he wrote about for Calbuzz last March – an absolute ban on fundraising at any time the Legislature is in session.

The ban, which would apply to both legislators and statewide office-holders, would extend 72 hours past the end of every session in order to prevent either chamber from gaveling themselves in or out for a few hours or over a long weekend. Both the Senate and Assembly would be required to conclude their respective sessions before any fundraising would be permitted. .  .

I believe that the reality of human nature suggests that a check written several months before or after a key legislative vote would weigh less heavily in the minds of all concerned. At the very least, the appearance of corruption would be reduced. And inarguably, the amount of time that a legislator or statewide officeholder would have to devote to his or her official responsibilities would increase dramatically if he or she no longer had to set aside large blocs of time every day for fundraising calls, receptions and other legalized shakedowns.

Since attacking election fraud and abuse has been such a big part of the cover for right-wingers seeking to restrict the votes of minorities, students and others in several states, we wondered if Schnur thinks voter fraud is a problem in California.

three-card-monteArtful Dodger on Sticky Issues He dodged the question using the “if…then” sidestep, arguing that if there’s even one case of voter fraud then that’s a problem. But so too is it a problem if there’s even one case of people being denied access to the ballot. He would not say whether he thinks voter fraud or ballot access are problems.

Likewise on voter ID cards. He wouldn’t say whether he supports or opposes them, only that if the Legislature were to decide to institute some form of voter ID, he would do everything in his power as SoS to ensure that everyone had access to the resources needed to establish an ID and reach the polls.

These are strategic responses, designed to avoid being categorized by the right or left as associated with either cause, without alienating those who believe voter fraud is a problem or that voter ID needs to be tightened.

But neither are these issues at the center of his campaign. His three key goals are: 1) Fixing a broken system; 2) Encouraging more participation, especially among younger people, and 3) Rebuilding the political center.

In part to bolster his bi-partisan bona fides, he’s relying on Democrat Darry Sragow and Republican Rob Stutzman, as his chief campaign consultants. He’s using Democrat Michelle Maravich and Republican Joanne Davis as fund raisers. And for communications advice, he’s getting help from Democrat Karen Skelton and Republican Donna Lucas. For polling, he’s relying on M4 Strategies, which employs largely on-line respondent panels, about which Calbuzz has long expressed concerns but which others have found reliable.

But even if Schnur can convince voters he’s no longer a partisan, what chance would an independent Secretary of State have getting anything approved by a Legislature, controlled by partisan Democrats with partisan Republicans just as determined?

powerofoneThe Power of One Schnur argues that if he were to get elected, it would resonate through the halls of the Capitol. “If the people of California were to elect an independent, no-party-preference candidate to statewide office for the first time in history, that would send a very powerful message to members of both parties,” Schnur said. Especially those members who might find themselves open to challenge in their newly-redrawn legislative districts.

This is Schnur holding himself out as an independent centrist with no allegiance to any special interest – not labor or business, not Latinos or whites, not women or men. Except for younger people, who he wants to get more engaged in California politics.

“This job ought to be held by someone who’s not beholden to the interest of either party,” Schnur argues. He’s got a point. Whether he proves to be that someone will be up to voters to decide.

*Since researching this story, Schnur has posted a $25,000 contribution from himself and a $6800 contribution from Gen Equity State PAC, which contributed in the past to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman and other Republicans and to the 2012 ballot measure seeking to prevent unions from using dues to make political contributions.

** As one of our Calbuzz commenters notes: Hiram Johnson was elected Governor in 1914 as the nominee of the Progressive Party, in a 5-way race.

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar gdewar says:

    Ahem, “Senator Without a District” Leland Yee has failed more often than not at aspiring to higher office. Just ask SF Mayor ED LEE. He’s just campaign donation fodder for his consultant.

    As for Schnur: there’s a scenario where he wins but he has to convince skeptics like me that he’s going to put aside ages of GOP politics to be “non partisan”. Just because you say that, what does that even mean? Seriously! There are times when being a fair and impartial person in a job like this means making tough decisions that inflict pain on your own friends , or your freind’s friends and so on. I doubt anyone can do that in CA in the hyper partisan environment we have.

    Finally, Alex Padilla. Hey, he’s cool and all but he’s also been in the California Democratic Party Bubble of unchallenged BS for years. The entire party is in a semi-SOMA like state of winning by “not losing” and preying upon the CA GOP’s epic failures. Just because the other guys (and come on they ARE guys) have been failing does not mean you can continue to win. Case studies: an anti death penalty for a cop killer voted as AG (Kamala the Willie-ness’s GF) and a failed Mayor of a small leftist city (Prince Newsom). if these two can win just because their opponents sucked more, that doesn’t mean the CDP is bulletproof. They’re not, and their continued laziness ensures they’ll screw up some how. After all, isn’t that what the Dems did for years?

  2. avatar thetruthsquad says:

    Here I was hoping that Calbuzz would put aside its long-standing friendship and provide an unvarnished view of the Schnur candidacy. Color me disappointed.

    Schnur has never held elected office. Nor has he managed anything. Not exactly the best credentials to run the SoS office (which does far more than elections).

    As Calbuzz notes, the “centerpiece” of his campaign is a temporary fundraising ban for legislators. Sounds great. But he still hasn’t put it in writing (despite talking about it for more than an year) and in concept would be unconstitutional and unworkable (http://www.sacbee.com/2013/06/09/5480562/fundraising-ban-would-be-gimmick.html). Meanwhile, Schnur refuses to endorse real campaign finance, including public financing.

    And, sorry kids, but turning over a new leaf as a “nonpartisan” after decades of trashing Democrats, supporting and working for anti-immigration candidates, and working on a Republican presidential campaign within recent memory is the move of a political chameleon, not someone who has seen the light.

    • avatar Young Moderate Dem says:

      It’s true that Schnur has never held elected office. But it’s also true that neither Padilla or Yee have managed anything. Decades spent as a legislator does not a manager make. If that’s considered a crucial prerequisite to serving as SoS, all three of them are on equal ground.

      I think what appeals to young Californians with a passing interest in politics and government like me is Schnur’s willingness to make a major change in political fundraising as we know it. While the other candidates mention incremental changes, Schnur has staked out a vision for reworking the system for a year now. And limits on contributions during the legislative session are not only constitutional and workable, but already exist in 29 states as of December 2011 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/limits-on-contributions-during-session.aspx).

      Schnur did work for several Republican candidates as a spokesman, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a conservative ideologue. He’s taught generations of students at UC Berkeley and USC for close to two decades, and as one of his former students, I can say that his commitment to pragmatism and reform is real. He supported redistricting reform and the top-two primary system here in California.

      Schnur dropped his Republican party affiliation in 2011, so he’s not some fly by night conservative hoping to confuse people with a “nonpartisan” label. Without seeking to speak for him, I think that he truly is a moderate reformer who, if he wins, would be indebted to no particular group. In any case, I’m very excited to see how his campaign goes over the next 5 months…and beyond.

    • avatar norcaljim says:

      Yee has been a legislator for almost 14 years. Padilla has been one for almost 8. Before the legislature Padilla was the President of the LA City Council for 4 years, an executive or manager position.

    • avatar LilCicero says:

      @norcaljim And look how well those entities perform. Dan has really transformed his director position at the Unruh Institute of Politics, and has overseen much of its success for many years now. If we want to talk about who is qualified, let’s go with the candidate who understands young people and truly understands what it will take to get them and other traditionally marginalized segments of the population back into the discussion and politically involved – not your usual politician who has too much experience in the halls of bureaucratic government power.

  3. avatar richardwinger says:

    This interesting article misleads people when it says an independent has never won statewide office in California, if “independent” means someone who wasn’t the nominee of the Republican or Democratic Parties. Hiram Johnson was elected Governor in 1914 as the nominee of the Progressive Party, in a 5-way race. Also Theodore Roosevelt carried California for president in 1912, the year he was the Progressive Party nominee.

    • avatar patwater says:

      Great point. Also note Earl Warren won BOTH the Democratic and Republican nominations in the 1946 Governors race. And note all of these examples (Hiram Johnson, TR, Earl Warren) appealed to a similar sort of progressivism.

  4. avatar Hank Plante says:

    Schnur has aligned himself with the only political movement in California that has shown real growth over the past decade: decline to state voters. They’re up 5.6% over the last 10 years (to 20.9%), while the Dems have been flat and the GOP has dropped to a dangerous 29%.

    • avatar Noozeyeguy says:

      I think Hank has hit the nail on the head here. “Decline to State” is well on its way to becoming the dominant “party” in California politics, and Schnur is positioning himself to take advantage of that. It’s a logical move for any centrist politician.

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