Despite scandals, key California politicians glide toward reelection. Here’s why.

A California insurance commissioner who billed taxpayers for long-distance living expenses and broke a vow not to accept campaign contributions from members of the industry he was elected to regulate.

A State Treasurer sued sexual harassment and unfair dismissal and criticized how much she charged taxpayers for business travel.

A Superintendent of Public Instruction is accused of: a toxic workplace and disobeying government rules Hiring a friend from abroad to a high-paying position in the California Department of Education.

Three of California’s eight state constitutional officers up for re-election in November — all Democrats — have had missteps or faced allegations of misconduct during their first four years in office, but voters don’t seem to mind.

Results from the June primary show all three are likely to be re-elected — a phenomenon political analysts attribute to the power of incumbents, California’s polarized politics and voters’ apathy towards lesser-known offices.

Either voters aren’t paying attention or have decided that even in bad times, incumbents are still their best option, said Jessica Levinson, an ethics expert and professor at Loyola Law School.

“I think there are some people who are going to say, ‘Do I want a Democrat who might be doing a questionable job, or do I want a Republican who holds views that I hate?'” Levinson said. “It’s not a good place when we’re talking about really important positions.”

Aside from the governor and possibly the attorney general, California state officials typically face sleeper races and little opposition, even when an incumbent is seared by scandal. This is despite the fact that these officers are responsible for a variety of government agencies that affect voters’ lives, from their pensions to the roads they drive to the schools their children attend.

Nearly 47% of registered voters in California are Democrats, 24% are Republicans, and nearly 23% are “no party preference.” No Republican has been elected statewide in California since 2006.

That could be part of the problem when it comes to voter withdrawal, said Bill Lockyer, a Democrat who has served as both state treasurer and attorney general under former governors. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Part of that may just be the relatively uncompetitive political environment in our state right now. The Democrats are so outnumbered that no one on the Republican side can fund opposition spending that might make these issues more immediate for voters,” said Lockyer, who also served as interim president of the state Senate in the 1990s . “We know that an informed and interested constituency is essential for it to work and it’s really disappointing when you don’t have it.”

Eric Schickler, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley and co-director of the university’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said the same political dynamic played out for another statewide constitutional official: Governor Gavin Newsom.

Schickler cited Newsom’s slight failure to recall last year and his expected re-election in November as evidence of an era of “pervasive polarization” on cultural issues that made it easy for California Democrats to secure a second term. Despite mishaps like his dinner at Tony French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley during the COVID-19 lockdown, voters last year overwhelmingly voted to keep Newsom in office.

“Once it became a reality … then voters think about it, ‘Okay, there’s Newsom, but what’s the alternative?'” Shickler said of the recall.

One of the most recent political scandals in Sacramento occurred in 2019 when acting Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara apologized after an investigation by the San Diego Union-Tribune found he had broken a campaign promise and accepted tens of thousands of dollars in donations from insurance executives, many of them with business before his department.

Controversy for Lara – a former state legislator – continued when he was criticized for using taxpayer money to pay rent on a Sacramento apartment while keeping his primary address in Los Angeles.

The insurance commissioner is now the focus of an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission into a complaint alleging political committees funneled campaign funds from industry members to support his re-election.

Still, Lara won 35.9% of the vote in the June 7 primary, compared to 18.1% received by his Republican opponent. Lara faced a formidable Democratic challenger in the primary: Greenbrae Rep. Marc Levine, who narrowly lost promotion to the election in November after leading a campaign that blew up Lara and “new leadership” in the department promised.

Robin Swanson, spokesman for Lara’s re-election campaign, said voters are unfazed by the political drama as long as elected officials do their jobs.

She cited Lara’s work to provide financial protection to wildfire victims who have lost their homes and to better prepare communities for climate change-related disasters such as floods and heatwaves.

“I just see it as a rejection of political mudslinging,” Swanson said. “The voters turn it off. They would rather hear what candidates are doing for them.”

Another Democrat, Treasurer Fiona Ma, is similarly well positioned ahead of the November election. Ma received 57.4% of the vote in June and will face a Republican who received just 21.9% of the votes cast.

But during her tenure as a California banker, Ma, a prospective gubernatorial candidate, was sued for harassment and wrongful termination by a worker who also alleges racial and disability discrimination.

Ma was also criticized for charging taxpayers more than $32,000 in room and board expenses to regularly travel from her San Francisco home to Sacramento, a practice other statewide officials do not partake in. according to a study by Sacramento Bee.

Ma has denied allegations of wrongdoing, calling ongoing litigation “frivolous” and the result of a “disgruntled employee” being fired over performance issues. She said she now commutes to and from her home in San Francisco every day.

Ma said she wants voters to focus on initiatives she oversees as state treasurer to promote affordable housing projects in California and ease homeownership burdens for low- and middle-income residents. She announced a new program to create college savings accounts for low-income kids in California and plans to use social media to engage more youth in recycling efforts.

“I’ve conducted approximately 300 Zoom webinars during the pandemic alone for small business owners, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, seniors and veterans to promote the various resources at the federal, state, local and private levels. I’m very proud of that,” said Ma.

support of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, a Democrat who heads a bipartisan bureau, received 45.9% of the vote in June, while his Republican challenger won 11.9%.

Thurmond has faced complaints from staffers who claim he is a hostile boss, leading to extreme turnover in top positions at the Department of Education. At least two of its employees quit after the state questioned its ability to hire people who live out of state for jobs funded by California taxpayers. He has also been criticized for his handling of school closures and distance learning during the pandemic.

Thurmond said he’s had “hard conversations with myself” about these issues and “my job as a leader is to constantly seek hard feedback.” He said he is focusing his re-election campaign on student mental health, literacy and addressing the academic fallout from COVID-19.

Lance Christensen, who works for the conservative California Policy Center and is running against Thurmond for superintendent, said he was struck by how quickly recent controversies seem to be disappearing without consequence.

Christensen, a Republican, blames both the state’s Democratic supermajority and a lack of awareness of how much power positions actually hold, leading to voter apathy, he said.

“There is no accountability with Democrats in Sacramento,” he said. “I just hope people pay more attention to the leaders who are supposed to be running our state, and in fact aren’t.”

California’s other statewide officers — including Newsom, Lt. gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Atty. General Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, all Democrats, are also up for re-election.

Voters are also presented with two new faces in the State Controller Race, which pits Republican Lanhee Chen against Democrat Malia Cohen.

Current status Controller Betty Yee is finished. Yee, too, was caught in controversy earlier this year when it was revealed she had helped broker a failed COVID-19 pandemic mask deal that had cost California $600 million. Despite scandals, key California politicians glide toward reelection. Here’s why.

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