Why down-ballot offices are also important

Top-of-the-ballot contests for governor and U.S. senator get most of the media attention—even if there’s little doubt about their outcomes—but California voters will also fill other statewide offices this week, and they are important in a state as large as California.

Those who hold other “constitutional” offices, as they are officially called, have duties that can affect Californians’ lives, albeit some far more than others. And traditionally, these down-ballot positions have been potential steppingstones to the governorship or other high offices.

Gavin Newsom is almost certain, for example, to become the second lieutenant governor in recent decades to win the governorship. Gov. Jerry Brown was secretary of state before becoming governor the first time in 1975 and attorney general before returning to the governorship 36 years later. Kamala Harris segued from attorney general into the U.S. Senate two years ago and is now a putative candidate for president.

Three Democratic incumbents—Attorney General Xavier Becerra (appointed by Brown to succeed Harris), state Controller Betty Yee and Secretary of State Alex Padilla—are highly favored to win new terms this week. Board of Equalization member Fiona Ma, another Democrat, is in line to become state treasurer.

There are, however, spirited duels for the other three statewide offices. Last week, polling by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies told us how they shape up.

It revealed, for instance, that Eleni Kounalakis, a former ambassador to Hungary, enjoys a 14-percentage-point lead over a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Ed Hernandez of Azusa, in their contest for lieutenant governor.

Kounalakis has benefited greatly from lavish campaign spending, much of it provided by her father, wealthy Sacramento developer Angelo Tsakopoulos.

While a lieutenant governor has few substantial duties, the job is, as Newsom personifies, a steppingstone. He or she also becomes governor if the incumbent leaves office in mid-term—always a possibility if the governor is an ambitious politician such as Newsom.

The Berkeley IGS Poll also told us that Marshall Tuck is leading in his very expensive, very contentious race for superintendent of schools against Richmond Assemblyman Tony Thurmond.

It’s a proxy battle in the long-running war between the education establishment, particularly the California Teachers Association, and a coalition of reformers who want more accountability for outcomes and more choices for parents, including charter schools. A Tuck victory would be a huge win for the “Equity Coalition.”

The CTA, et al, are pouring millions of dollars into Thurmond’s campaign, hoping he will extend the establishment’s hold on the office, which has substantial authority over how schools are operating. But the reformers, backed by some very wealthy individuals, are spending even more on Tuck, a charter-school advocate who came very close to unseating Supt. Tom Torlakson four years ago.

Although the office is nonpartisan, both candidates are Democrats. The Democratic Party has joined its union allies in supporting Thurmond.

Finally, the poll found that Steve Poizner, who as a Republican was elected insurance commissioner in 2006, then gave up the post for an unsuccessful bid for governor, is slightly favored to recapture the office as a “no party preference” candidate.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Los Angeles Democrat, is his party’s candidate. But Poizner benefits from a virtual clean sweep of newspaper endorsements, which are important in races for relatively obscure offices.

The winner will influence what Californians pay for vital insurance. If it’s Poizner, it opens a new pathway to high office in deep-blue California.

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