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Dan Schnur rolls dice on ‘no party preference’

At age 20, Dan Schnur threw all of his clothes and his typewriter into his car and drove to the nation’s capitol, leaving the Midwest to work for Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. He’s been immersed in politics ever since.

Schnur, a veteran Republican who dropped his party preference three years ago, has worked for years behind the scenes for elected officials as a communications expert and political strategist.

But now he wants to be an elected official himself: He is in a crowded field of contenders for secretary of state. The top two vote-getters will confront each other in the November general election.

Schnur faces an uphill fight. A recent Field Poll put him in fourth place in the middle of three candidates who are well behind the leading two contenders, following Sen. Leland Yee’s withdrawal amid scandal.

More than a fifth of California’s voters – 21.1 percent – decline to state their party preference, nearly double the level 15 years ago. The highest per-county concentration of decline-to-state voters is in San Francisco, where more than 30 percent say they have no party preference, according to the state’s election officer.

Pete Petersen, a former United States Secretary of Commerce and a Republican, was the front runner with support from 30 percent of this surveyed, while state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, had 17 percent. The Green Party’s David Curtis was in third at 5 percent, Schnur with 4 percent and Democrat Derek Cressman was at 3 percent.

But more than 41 percent were undecided who to vote for – a common factor in early polling. And those unsure of the candidates may be making choices based on party affiliation.

So a key issue is whether Schnur’s lack of party identification will hinder him. He says no.

“Lack of party affiliation won’t hurt a bit,” he said. “The fastest growing voter group in California is the no-party-preferred group.”

But some who have dropped – or changed – their party affiliation to run for office have not fared well, such as former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, who was defeated in his campaign for San Diego mayor. This year’s secretary of state race will put that issue at center stage in a statewide race.

More than a fifth of California’s voters – 21.1 percent – decline to state their party preference, nearly double the level 15 years ago. The highest per-county concentration of decline-to-state voters is in San Francisco, where more than 30 percent say they have no party preference, according to the state’s election officer.

Meanwhile, as the numbers of voters who decline to give state a party preference has increased, Democratic and Republican registration has declined, GOP registration more so. Democrats currently account for 43.5 percent of registered voters, while the GOP represents 28.6 percent.

Schnur’s roles in four Republican presidential races – including a stint as John McCain’s communications director in 2000 — and three GOP gubernatorial campaigns may help him to siphon off Republican votes if support for Petersen – largely unknown in California — wanes.

His reforms include speedy disclosure of campaign contributions and a ban on donations while the Legislature is in session.

In 2010, Schnur was appointed chairman of the state Fair Political Practices Commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and served in that position until the spring of 2011. The FPPC enforces campaign finance laws.

“I became a registered ‘no-party-preferred’ voter here following my time spent as chairman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.  That position opened my eyes,” he says,” and I’ve been so appalled by the non-stop political fund-raising process that I’m determined to take on mutual campaign finance reform. The place to do that is in the secretary of state job.”

His reforms include speedy disclosure of campaign contributions and a ban on donations while the Legislature is in session.

Padilla, a Democrat with a strong Hispanic base, has won local contests in the southern part of the state with wide margins over his opponents, but this will be his first run at statewide office. Padilla, once a leading contender for the state Senate leadership, is all but certain to have the backing of the state Democratic Party’s resources, a factor that is critical in a race where fund-raising is difficult.

Through mid-March, Padilla had the clear fundraising advantage, with $614,000 in campaign cash on hand, Schnur about $260,000,  Cressman some $77,000 and Petersen about $1,600.

But Schnur isn’t buying the contention that he’ll be an ‘also ran.’

“Voters across all ethnic and demographic lines have agreed that the office of secretary of state should be a nonpartisan one” he says, “and the state’s chief elections officer shouldn’t be playing for either side any more than the umpire shouldn’t be wearing a Giants or a Dodgers jersey.”

He serves as director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and as an Adjunct Instructor at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.  In addition to handling communications for McCain, he spent five years as chief media spokesman for California Gov. Pete Wilson. He also managed the 2003 campaign of Republican Peter Ueberroth for governor – Schnur’s last partisan bout.

Schnur’s political posture was at odds with others in his family. His father, a lifelong Democrat, teaches law at the University of Wisconsin. His mother founded the Milwaukee Children’s Museum and started the first multiracial and multiethnic preschool in the city. His brother worked in the Clinton Administration doing education policy work and was co-chair of President Obama’s education policy transition team.  He’s also the founder of New Leaders for New Schools which trains and places principals in at risk schools across the country and focuses as well on broad education reform.

The family political mix also may provide insight into this year’s political campaign.

“Politics is broken in California for a host of reasons,” he says. “It’s clearly become too partisan and polarized for a start.  And one of the largest frustrations voters have with politics is that they rightly believe their elected officials spend a lot more time raising money for the next campaign than they do spending time on the job they were elected to do.”

*Ed’s Note: CORRECTS 4th and 5th grafs to show that Green Party candidate David Curtis  in third place in recent Field Poll without Leland Yee in the race.


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