SACRAMENTO — Thirteen years ago, Debra Bowen swept into the Capitol and, with the naive zeal typical of many freshman lawmakers, announced it was time for campaign finance reform.
Not surprisingly, the idea received a frosty reception from her new colleagues in the state Assembly, and the rookie Democrat from Marina del Rey soon was experiencing legislative defeat.
Unlike her proposal, Bowen's interest in fair elections did not perish. And now, as one of two newcomers to statewide office after Tuesday's election, she's poised to occupy a post that will put it to use.
After all the votes were counted, Bowen, 51, emerged the winner in a tight race for California secretary of state. She is the only woman elected this year to a constitutional office, and one of only six women in California history to capture a statewide post.
Bowen succeeds Bruce McPherson, a Republican who was appointed to the job by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 after Democrat Kevin Shelley resigned. McPherson lost his bid to stay in office after a contentious race marked largely by the candidates' differences over the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines.
An attorney who served three terms in the Assembly and two tours in the Senate, Bowen is no-nonsense, analytical and viewed as a savvy problem-solver with a strong work ethic.
Although little-known statewide, she earned serious stripes in Sacramento for her calm, decisive leadership of the Senate's energy committee during the state's energy crisis of 2001.
More recently, she has used her position as chairwoman of the Senate Elections Committee to champion election reform. Her view: Voters have lost confidence in the security and sanctity of elections, an erosion that began with the 2000 presidential recount in Florida and continues amid fears that electronic voting machines are not foolproof.
Bowen's long-serving aide, Evan Goldberg, describes her as ideally suited for secretary of state at a time when technology is dramatically changing the ballot-box experience. An engineer's daughter and self-described computer nerd, Bowen blends a passion for open government with an ability to engage in techno-talk with the best of them.
Experts say she will need that ability and more to navigate the tricky times ahead.
"The challenge we face is trying to rebuild voter confidence," said Kim Alexander of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation. "Sen. Bowen is a sharp, intellectual public servant ... but it won't be easy restoring accountability in a way that satisfies voters and the registrars."
During the campaign, Bowen expressed doubts about the reliability of voting machines already in use in many counties around the state. She said she would conduct a thorough review of such machines to ensure they meet security standards, and warned that those falling short won't be used -- even if it means the loss of millions counties have invested in the equipment.
"It's unfortunate," she said of the potential losses while campaigning in October, but "democracy is too important. The integrity of elections is too important."
Such statements have made many local elections officials more than a little uneasy. In an e-mail sent shortly after Bowen's election, the president of the statewide association of registrars, Steve Weir of Contra Costa County, said, "I make no bones about it, I'm worried."
Los Angeles County Registrar Conny McCormack said such qualms are natural with the departure of McPherson, who was well-liked and described as a stabilizing force after the tumult and discord registrars said they experienced under Shelley.
McCormack said she is hopeful about the future, but noted that if Bowen finds reason to reject voting machines in use in many counties, it would be devastating.
"We certainly don't want to go backwards and see this equipment decertified," McCormack said. She added that it would be ironic if Bowen, herself a victor in Tuesday's election, decided that the machines were faulty.
"Winners don't normally make those accusations," she quipped.
Acknowledging the anxiety within one of her prime constituencies, Bowen said the review of voting machines would be "orderly and meticulous," with input from all parties.
And in an interview, she said she was more concerned about more run-of-the-mill problems clouding Tuesday's balloting, including reports that at some polling places in Orange and San Joaquin counties voters were forced to stand in line for two to three hours.
"That's disturbing, and I don't like hearing that some voters were given paper ballots in a language that wasn't their own because there wasn't a sufficient backup plan," Bowen said. "We have to work on that. And if counties need resources to get it done, I'll go to bat for them."
Bowen divides her time between a home in Marina del Rey and one in the capital, near a levee beside the Sacramento River. When not working, she enjoys fly-fishing and skiing with her family in Vail, Colo.