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Can California Secretary of State hopeful Pete Peterson help the state Republican Party?

Pete Peterson is a Republican candidate for California Secretary of State in 2014.
Pete Peterson is a Republican candidate for California Secretary of State in 2014.
Frank Stoltze

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Pete Peterson is a Republican who supports abortion rights, backs gay marriage and endorses an immigration reform plan that includes a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. In fact, he points out California’s state constitution was written in English and Spanish in 1849.

The next Secretary of State likely won’t deal with any of these issues. But Democrats repeatedly have used them to sink Republican candidates in socially liberal California. Right now, the GOP holds no statewide office. Less than 30 percent of voters statewide are registered as Republican.

So maybe Peterson can help lift a sinking party. He’s taking an interesting approach to his first run for office.

“More than Secretary of State, I am running to be California’s first ‘Chief Engagement Officer,’” Peterson told a Sacramento news conference Wednesday.

Peterson is the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University. Unlike many Republicans, the 46-year-old supports allowing people to register to vote on the same day as an election. GOP leaders have long worried such a law would benefit Democrats.

“This is about getting more people involved – whether that’s Democrats or Republicans, Hispanics, whites, Africans-Americans, Asians, young, and old,” Peterson told KPCC. “We need more Californians participating in civic life.”

The former graphic designer and marketer says he wants to make government “more transparent, understandable, and participatory.” For example, he would make all sorts of voter and ballot information easily available on handheld devices. Peterson calls his overall goal “Maximum Informed Secure Participation” in his five point plan, which can be read below.

“I am passionate about participation,” says Peterson, who lives in Santa Monica with his wife and 18-month-old daughter.

One other interesting idea from Peterson: If elected, he would base his Secretary of State salary on a “Performance Dashboard” – comprised of metrics including voter turnout and speed of business registration. The Secretary of State registers all businesses – something he wants to make cheaper and faster.

He’ll compete in California’s new open primary system next year. At least three Democrats have announced they are also running: State Senators Alex Padilla of Los Angeles and Leland Yee of San Francisco, plus former Common Cause Regional Director Derek Cressman. The top two finishers – regardless of party – will advance to a November run-off.

“I’m not naive to my chances here,” says the Republican about the overwhelmingly Democratic political climate in California. “But I’m uniquely qualified.”

He cites his Pepperdine work training public sector leaders in how to better involve people in public policy decisions through the use of social media and other technology. Peterson calls Sacramento “technology-challenged” and notes that the Pew Center recently ranked California’s election system 48th among the 50 states.

He is not beyond throwing political punches, by any means. He accuses Governor Jerry Brown of attempting to weaken the Public Records Act and “thumbing his nose at the spirit, if not the letter, of California’s open meetings laws.”

It remains to be seen how Peterson performs on the campaign and fundraising trails. He is not to be confused with another famous Pete Peterson, the billionaire co-founder of the Blackstone Group, who argues for dramatically shrinking social security and Medicare to reduce the national debt.

Pete Peterson 5 Point Plan