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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / SECRETARY OF STATE : Democrats Put On Spirited Race; Outcome Uncertain


SACRAMENTO — It may seem like one of the sleepier statewide elected offices, but just 20 years ago a California secretary of state was able to detonate enough fireworks during a single term to be elected governor.

That was Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.

More typical were the two Frank Jordans, father and son, who served quietly over more than half of this century, in a day when death and not the state Constitution set term limits for the office.

This year, four candidates from the major parties are in the running for the post--one of those jobs that can serve as the minor leagues for big league posts such as governor.

An unpredictable three-way contest among Democrats features former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Woo, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore of Los Angeles, and the acting secretary of state, Tony Miller.

In the Republican primary, Assemblyman Bill Jones of Fresno is unopposed.

None of the candidates register on the Richter scale of public awareness--with the exception of Woo, runner-up in the Los Angeles mayoral race last year.

All the competitors facing off in the primary have compiled substantial records in government service.

But there are liabilities for these candidates as well. Supporters of each have raised questions about what they say are the ethical lapses of the others. And those who watch the office closely believe that whoever wins ought to be a model of integrity.

Whether or not the post can ever again be a way station on the path to higher office, several observers agree that the job is an important one.

The secretary of state coordinates elections and voter registration, collects campaign fund-raising reports, maintains the state's historical archives and handles a variety of business filings, including corporate records and trademark applications. The office also puts out the statewide ballot pamphlet. Despite the title, the job has nothing to do with foreign affairs.

Miller, 45, has received national attention as the first openly gay candidate for a statewide office, apparently anywhere in the country. His campaign has received only modest financial support from gay organizations, and he says he is not running as a gay candidate.

"The issue is qualification and experience to do the job," said Miller, who took over as acting secretary of state when March Fong Eu stepped down in February to become ambassador to Micronesia.

Miller, an attorney, has worked in the office for 18 years, first as its chief legal counsel and then as top deputy. Before that, he served briefly as a member of the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Since taking over, he has sued Gov. Pete Wilson for the Administration's allegedly slow response to the new, federal "motor voter" requirements, which will allow citizens to register to vote when applying for a driver's license or welfare. And under Miller's direction, the statewide voters pamphlet for the first time carries candidates' statements and photographs--as well as his own signature prominently on the cover.

Miller has attempted to break the link between lobbying and campaign contributions through a voluntary system of signing up lobbyists who say they no longer want elected officials to ask them for campaign contributions.

"Just as Watergate spawned the Political Reform Act of 1974, I clearly believe that Shrimpgate (a federal sting operation in the state Capitol) should spawn the reforms of the 1990s," Miller said.

He proposes a ban on lobbyists' arranging clients' campaign contributions. He wants limits on the size of all contributions, opposes using public money directly to finance campaigns, but says the state ought to consider buying television time to sponsor candidate debates.

And he is backing a proposal to make the office nonpartisan.

Miller's opponents contend that as chief deputy he was lax in enforcing fines against those who were late in filing campaign finance reports. These critics say Miller has forgiven millions of dollars in fines, including more than $25,000 that should have been collected from Eu.

Miller says he has been evenhanded in administering the fines, reducing them only for "non-willful" violations.

Moore, 53, is the favorite of party regulars, labor unions and other traditional Democratic supporters and he hopes that that support will overcome Woo's wider name recognition and Miller's place on the ballot as "the acting secretary of state."

"My vision for the secretary of state's office is to move it into the Information Age," she said in an interview. Among her ideas: an electronic voters pamphlet available through libraries, schools and home computers, giving voters a full range of views and opinions by and about candidates.

Once a Los Angeles County probation officer, Moore got her start in elected politics as a member of the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees. She has been an assemblywoman for 15 years.

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