A string of legal cases against lawmakers that include two Democrats facing political corruption charges has magnified the usually quiet race for the office overseeing California elections and campaign fundraising. Candidates vying to become secretary of state are offering competing plans to inject transparency and restore public faith in government. A race that typically exists in the political backwaters of a California election season popped on to the public stage earlier this year when one of the top candidates, Democratic state Sen. Leland Yee, was arrested and later indicted on federal corruption charges as part of a wider probe into illicit dealings in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yee has since pleaded not guilty and dropped his candidacy, even though his name will remain on the June 3 primary ballot. The charges against Yee include allegations that he peddled his influence in the Legislature in exchange for campaign contributions from undercover FBI agents.
State Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, is fighting similar charges in a separate federal case, while Democratic Sen. Rod Wright was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for lying about his legal residency in the Los Angeles area. Their fellow senators suspended all three. In April, the California Fair Political Practices Commission fined state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, and his brother Bill, a former Republican member of the Assembly, for illegally transferring campaign cash.
Secretary of state candidates seeking to replace the termed out incumbent, Democrat Debra Bowen, are capitalizing on the cases to propose reforms. Among them is overhauling the Cal-Access database that tracks campaign spending and contributions. The system, maligned as outdated and cumbersome, has long been targeted for a reboot. “Anyone who uses it today knows it’s too slow, and even if you make it faster, that’s still not enough,” said state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles.