How to Find California Political Sleaze

Californians will elect more than a U.S. Senator and a governor this year. There are the so-called down-ticket statewide offices, too -- lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, controller, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction. These races don't get much attention, but they're worth watching (the Sacramento Bee has a new on-line tool for doing just that) for at least one reason only.

These are the races and offices that produce most of California's political sleaze.

Think of the biggest scandals of the past generation and inevitably you'll think of down-ticket offices. There was School Superintendent Bill Honig's 1993 conviction for violating conflict of interest rules in approving contracts with a non-profit group run by his wife. Controller Gray Davis got in trouble the same year for handing out obscure jobs paying $100,000 a year to contributors and their families. In 2000, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned after it was learned that he had given settlements to insurance compnaies in exchange for contributions that funded TV ads on his behalf. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley was forced out in 2005 after a state grant for a non-profit ended up in his campiagn account.

Why do these jobs produce such scandal? Because the jobs themselves create huge incentives for mischief.

These downticket posts are incubators of political ambition -- perches for people who want to run for other, bigger things. But the jobs don't have much broad effect on people's lives, and the officeholders get little scrutiny. The powers of such jobs are narrow, so the only people who really care who insurance commissioner is are the narrow interests regulated by the commissioner's decisions. The potential for corruption is obvious.

What to do? The best thing would be to eliminate some of these jobs (lieutenant governor would be first on my list) and make others, such as attorney general, appointed positions instead of elected ones. Among statewide officers, only the governor and the secretary of state (who administers elections and thus shouldn't be appointed by the governor) should be elected by the people. Making these changes would make California politics significantly cleaner.

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