October 20, 2018

After electoral loss, still fighting for political reform

Dan Schnur isn’t backing off from his push to reform the electoral system in the Golden State. 

Schnur finished fourth in last week’s primary in his bid for California Secretary of State, an election that drew only about 25 percent of registered voters statewide. The results from his own race also suggest that many who voted did so without much information about the candidates, but Schnur, a political analyst and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said he doesn’t regret the months he spent trying to be the first independent candidate to get elected to a statewide office in California. 

“If I had known at the beginning of the campaign what the outcome would have been,” Schnur told the Journal just a few days after the election, “there’s no question in my mind I still would have done this, because it was a tremendous experience — except for the outcome, of course.” 

Secretary of State isn’t a well-known position; its responsibilities include overseeing elections and ensuring that campaign finance information is tracked and accessible. But for Schnur, who has served as an adviser to Republican candidates, the position would have placed him at the center of the conversation about how elections should be run and financed. 

Schnur won just 9 percent of votes, slightly fewer than Sen. Leland Yee, who withdrew from the race in May after being indicted on corruption and gun trafficking charges. Still, Schnur said he is proud that a central plank of his platform — prohibiting Sacramento lawmakers from fundraising while in session — was addressed during the campaign by the two candidates who advanced to the second round, Democratic State Sen. Alex Padilla and Republican Pete Peterson. 

Schnur was a leading voice in the effort to reform the California electoral system long before he decided to throw his hat into the ring this year. He co-led the group that successfully changed how congressional and legislative districts are drawn in the state. And he supported the introduction of the new “top-two” system of primary elections, first put into practice in 2012, which was part of what made Schnur decide to run for office for the first time. 

“I supported the top-two primary for reasons that had nothing to do with my political goals, but in an effort to create a more competitive landscape for legislative and congressional elections in California,” Schnur said by phone from his home in the Hollywood Hills on June 8. More competitive elections, Schnur said, would encourage candidates to stake out more moderate positions and generally be more responsive to their constituents. 

That’s a benefit for any voter with an issue he or she is concerned about, and Schnur, who is Jewish, said Jewish and pro-Israel voters are no exception. To illustrate this, he pointed to the primary results in California’s 33rd Congressional District, where Republican Elan Carr finished first, thanks in part to support from Jewish and pro-Israel voters. 

“The open primary provided a very valuable service to pro-Israel voters in this community,” Schnur said. “Under the old rules, Carr would have won the Republican primary and almost certainly been overwhelmingly defeated in November. That would have left pro-Israel voters in the electorate with relatively little ability to influence the debate.” 

Under the new system, by contrast, Israel policy was a matter of debate for all the candidates in the race, and it gave Carr the incentive and the platform to introduce himself to all voters, regardless of party. 

“These reforms are so new, but I would make the broader argument that competitive elections lead to responsive officeholders,” Schnur said. “If you know that you might face a competitive re-election at any time, it dramatically increases your incentive to listen to what your constituents are telling you.”

Schnur said he is not likely run again for public office but plans to continue his work to change the system of elections in California. Indeed, he saw his unsuccessful bid as part of that effort — helping to pave the way for other independent candidates for statewide office. 

 “We knew going in that the top-two would make a general election more achievable, but a primary more challenging,” Schnur said. “We underestimated how much more challenging, but there’s no question that if an independent candidate can make it into the general, that candidate begins with a tremendous advantage.”