SACRAMENTO — Her opponents wish she'd stick with oil painting and golf. But March Fong Eu--who turns 80 next month--has had it with retirement and wants to be California's secretary of state. Again.
"I'm not done yet," declares Eu. She held the job for nearly 20 years, but insists, "I still have some things to finish up."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 27, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Michela Alioto--A story Sunday in the California section on the California secretary of state's race misstated candidate Michela Alioto's advertising plans. She will begin running a television ad this week.
For fellow Democrats in the race, Eu's renewed interest is unfortunate. Analysts say her enduring name identification among voters gives the petite, energetic grandmother a solid edge heading into the March 5 primary election.
Polls confirm that assessment, showing Eu--who resigned from the job in 1994 to become an ambassador--with a solid lead over rivals Michela Alioto and Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco).
"Anybody who holds office for 20 years is going to infiltrate the voters' consciousness to some degree," says Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist. "But if your name is on the sample ballots they receive every election, that adds up to a lot of name ID."
Alioto, who nearly ousted incumbent Bill Jones four years ago, concedes that Eu is a formidable force and that her own candidacy is "in some ways a shot in the dark."
But Shelley, who enjoys the support of the Democratic establishment, says that once voters get to know him, he'll surge past Eu on election day. "March Fong Eu performed during her time. But now California needs a modern approach," he says.
To overcome Eu's advantage, Shelley and Alioto must get their names into California households--quickly. But waging a statewide campaign requires television, and TV time is expensive.
Alioto, who has raised about $600,000, says she simply has no money to go on the air. Shelley has raised $1.4 million, and is running ads featuring his endorsement by California's U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. What remains to be seen is whether he can be on TV with enough frequency to make a difference.
The secretary of state is California's chief elections officer, charged with enforcing electoral laws, printing ballot pamphlets and supervising voting. In addition, the office keeps records of lobbying activities and campaign contributions and expenditures. The secretary also handles the registration of corporations and trademarks and is custodian of the state archives.
Typically, the race for the $131,250-a-year job is a sleepy one. It's a relatively unglamorous post, and with the exception of Jerry Brown, no California secretary of state in modern times has gone on to become governor.
But in the wake of what has been dubbed the "Florida fiasco"--the disputed count of thousands of ballots in the 2000 presidential contest--the post seems to have new appeal. Five Democrats, three Republicans and five minor party candidates are vying for the job Jones must vacate at the end of his second term in January. Jones, a Republican, has been widely credited with modernizing the office and expanding the online reporting of campaign documents and lobbyist filings. His successor's most pressing task will be to oversee California's switch from the much maligned punch-card voting machines to a new system.
Punch-card voting--still used by most of the electorate, including Los Angeles County--fell out of favor after the Florida controversy over ballots with "hanging" or "pregnant" chads.
Touch-Screen Voting a Key Issue
A federal judge has ruled that the punch-card machines in California must go by 2004. The preferred choice is computer touch-screen voting, in which voters press selections on a machine resembling a bank ATM. The computers offer choices in different languages and permit voters to correct mistakes before sending their electronic ballot.
So far, only Riverside County is using touch-screen voting on a widespread basis. Other counties are waiting for money from the federal government--an estimated $300 million is expected to come California's way--or from a bond measure on the March ballot.
Shelley, 46, is the author of Proposition 41 and is selling himself as the candidate with the experience and new ideas to see California through the voting transition. A former San Francisco supervisor, he was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and serves as Assembly majority leader. But he must leave the lower house at the end of the year because of term limits.
Last year, he won Gov. Gray Davis' signature on a bill allowing Californians to apply for permanent absentee voter status. He also authored a bill--now stalled in the state Senate--that would increase poll worker training, create a "voters' bill of rights" and fund a voter education campaign.
Like his rivals, Shelley says one of the secretary of state's priorities should be reversing the steady decline in voter turnout. Toward that end, he would allow people to register to vote up through election day, and he proposes a "youth voting corps" to rally interest in suffrage within the younger generation.