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Despite scandals, key California politicians glide toward reelection. Here's why.

LA Times logo LA Times 9/27/2022 Mackenzie Mays, Hannah Wiley

A California insurance commissioner who billed taxpayers for long-distance living expenses and broke a vow not to accept campaign donations from members of the industry he was elected to regulate.

A state treasurer sued for sexual harassment and wrongful termination and criticized for how much she charged taxpayers for business trips.

A superintendent of public instruction accused of creating a toxic workplace and flouting state rules by hiring a friend from out of state to a top-paying position at the California Department of Education.

Three of California's eight statewide constitutional officers up for reelection in November — all Democrats — have had missteps or faced allegations of misconduct during their first four years in office, but voters don't seem to mind.

June's primary election results show that all three are likely to cruise to reelection — a phenomenon that political analysts chalk up to the power of incumbency, California's polarized politics and voter apathy toward lesser-known offices.

Either voters aren't paying attention or have decided that the incumbents are still their best option, even in bad times, said Jessica Levinson, an ethics expert and professor at Loyola Law School.

"I think there are some people who will say, 'Do I want a Democrat who might do a questionable job or do I want a Republican who holds views that are anathema to mine?'" Levinson said. "That is not a great place to be when we’re talking about really important positions."

Aside from the governor and possibly the state attorney general, California's statewide officers typically face sleeper races and little opposition even if an incumbent is singed by scandal. That's despite those officeholders being in charge of a variety of state agencies that affect the lives of voters, from their pensions to the roads they drive on and the schools their children attend.

Nearly 47% of registered voters in California are Democrats, 24% are Republican and close to 23% are "no party preference." A Republican has not been elected statewide in California since 2006.

That could be part of the problem when it comes to voter disengagement, said Bill Lockyer, a Democrat who served as both state treasurer and attorney general under former Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Some of it may just be the relatively noncompetitive political environment right now in our state. The Democrats have it so outnumbered that no one on the Republican side can finance opposition spending that would maybe make these issues more immediate to voters," said Lockyer, who also served as president pro tem of the the state Senate in the 1990s. "We know that an informed and interested electorate is essential to make it work, and it's really disappointing when you don't have it."

Eric Schickler, a UC Berkeley political science professor and co-director of the university's Institute of Governmental Studies, said the same political dynamic has played out for another statewide constitutional officer: Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Schickler pointed to Newsom's easy defeat of a recall attempt last year and his expected reelection in November as evidence of an era of "pervasive polarization" over cultural issues that has made it easy for Democrats in California to cruise to a second term. Despite snafus like his dinner at the tony French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley during the COVID-19 lockdown, voters last year overwhelmingly decided to keep Newsom in office.

"Once it became a reality ... then voters are thinking about, 'OK, there’s Newsom, but what's the alternative?'" Shickler said of the recall.

One of Sacramento's most recent political scandals came in 2019, when incumbent Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara issued an apology after a San Diego Union-Tribune investigation found that he violated a campaign promise and accepted tens of thousands of dollars in donations from insurance executives, many with business before his department.

Controversy continued for Lara — a former state lawmaker — when he faced criticism for using taxpayer money to pay rent on a Sacramento apartment while he maintained his main address in Los Angeles.

The insurance commissioner is now at the center of a Fair Political Practices Commission investigation into a complaint that alleges political committees funneled campaign funds from industry members to aid in his reelection.

Still, Lara won 35.9% of the June 7 primary election vote, compared to the 18.1% his Republican opponent received. Lara did face a formidable Democratic challenger in the primary: Assemblymember Marc Levine of Greenbrae, who narrowly lost advancing to the November ballot after running a campaign that blasted Lara and promised "new leadership" in the department.

Robin Swanson, spokesperson for Lara's reelection campaign, said voters are unfazed by the political drama as long as elected officials do their jobs.

She pointed to Lara's work to provide financial protection to wildfire victims who have lost their homes and to better prepare communities for climate change-related disasters like floods and heat waves.

"I see this as just a rejection of political mudslinging," Swanson said. "Voters tune it out. They would rather hear what candidates are doing for them."

Another Democrat, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, is similarly well-positioned before the November election. Ma earned 57.4% of the vote in June and will face a Republican who received just 21.9% of ballots cast.

But during her tenure as California's banker, Ma, a future gubernatorial prospect, was sued for harassment and wrongful termination by a worker who also alleged racial and disability discrimination.

Ma also faced criticism for charging taxpayers more than $32,000 in lodging and meal expenses to travel regularly from her home in San Francisco to Sacramento, a practice that other statewide officers do not engage in, a Sacramento Bee investigation found.

Ma has rejected accusations of misconduct and called ongoing litigation "frivolous" and the result of a "disgruntled employee" who was terminated for performance issues. She said she now commutes to and from her home in San Francisco each day.

Ma said she wants voters to focus on initiatives she oversees as state treasurer to increase affordable housing projects in California and ease burdens to homeownership for low- and middle-income residents. She touted a new program to set up college savings accounts for low-income kids in California and plans to use social media to get more youth involved in recycling efforts.

"I've done about 300 Zoom webinars just in the pandemic, to small business owners, nonprofits, religious organizations, seniors, veterans, getting out the word about all of the different resources at the federal, state, local and private sectors. That's something that I'm very proud of," Ma said.

Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, a Democrat overseeing a nonpartisan office, earned 45.9% of the vote in June, while his Republican challenger won 11.9%.

Thurmond has faced complaints from employees who alleged he is a hostile boss, which has resulted in extreme turnover in top-level Department of Education positions. At least two of his employees resigned after the state questioned his ability to hire people living out of state for jobs bankrolled by California taxpayers. He has also faced criticism for his handling of school closures and distance learning during the pandemic.

Thurmond has said he has had "tough conversations with myself" about those issues and that "my job as a leader is to take tough feedback all the time.” He said he is focusing his reelection campaign on student mental health, literacy and mending academic fallout from COVID-19.

Lance Christensen, who works for the conservative California Policy Center, and is running against Thurmond for superintendent, said he is floored by how quickly the recent controversies seem to evaporate without consequences.

Christensen, a Republican, blames both the state's Democratic super-majority and a lack of awareness about what power the positions actually hold, which has led to voter apathy, he said.

"There's no accountability with the Democrats in Sacramento," he said. "I'm just hoping that people will pay more attention to the leaders who are ostensibly supposed to be leading our state, and in fact, are not."

California's other statewide officer holders — including Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, all Democrats — are also up for reelection.

Voters will also be presented with two new faces in the state controller race, where Republican Lanhee Chen is vying against Democrat Malia Cohen.

Current state Controller Betty Yee is terming out. Yee, too, stepped into controversy earlier this year when it was revealed she helped broker a failed COVID-19 pandemic mask deal that cost California $600 million.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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