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Would-be successors to Secretary of State Debra Bowen made their cases Wednesday that they would inject new energy into an office they said has become technologically inept and disengaged.

"A lot of people either see this job as a stepping stone or couch. And I think what we've been living through for the last eight years has been an administration that has seen this as a couch," Republican Pete Peterson said of Bowen, who took office in 2006, at Wednesday's debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club.

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, credited Bowen with preventing major ballot snafus akin to the Florida debacle in the 2000 election. "But can we, and should we, do much better? Absolutely," Padilla said after the panel. "You have to have the vision."

Peterson and Padilla were among four of the eight candidates for the top elections job at Wednesday's forum that also included Democrats Derek Cressman, a former official with California Common Cause; and independent Dan Schnur, an educator and former Republican strategist.

Notably absent were suspended state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who ended his secretary of state's campaign shortly before being indicted on corruption and conspiracy charges; and Green Party candidate David Curtis, who was not invited to the debate and whose pledge to show up anyway prompted the presence of three Sacramento police officers downstairs.

After the event, Curtis blamed his exclusion on an undemocratic relationship between "corporate media" and "corporate candidates" based on advertising dollars.

Seated in a ballroom about four blocks from Bowen's office, Peterson, Schnur, Cressman and Padilla echoed each other's criticism of the state's creaky Cal-Access campaign-finance database and a paper-based business filing system.

The candidates said they were the best to replace Bowen. Padilla said he could work with fellow colleagues in the Legislature to get more money for Cal-Access and other improvements. Cressman, who wrote a book on campaign-finance reform, said Bowen's tenure shows that former lawmakers are ill-suited for the job.

As former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, Schnur said he has the ideas to revitalize the office. And Peterson called the post a dream job to which he would bring an outsider's energy.

Responding to the criticism, Bowen spokeswoman Shannan Velayas said in an e-mail, "We understand that it's part of politics to run against the incumbent even though there is no incumbent in the race."

The candidates also parted ways on political money. Padilla touted his legislation to ban fundraising during the final 100 days of the legislative session. Schnur called that inadequate, and said any ban should apply to the entire session. Cressman said all "big money" should be excluded from the political process and the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling overturned, and Schnur and Peterson chided Padilla as late to the issue.

With Peterson and Padilla topping a recent Field Poll, there were signs of likely points of attack in the fall. Padilla challenged Peterson to disavow Republican measures in other states that critics contend are meant to disenfranchise Democrat-leaning voters.

Peterson said he disagreed with his party on those issues. "We don't have a problem with people voting illegally. We have a problem of not enough people voting legally," he said.

Peterson, meanwhile, questioned Padilla for not embracing ERIC, an inter-state consortium designed to quickly re-register voters who move.

Editor's note: This post was updated at 4:54 p.m. April 23 to include comment from Bowen spokeswoman Shannan Velayas.

PHOTO: Democrat Derek Cressman, left, a candidate for Secretary of State, makes his opening statement during a candidates debate held by the Sacramento Press Club in Sacramento on Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Cressman debated a fellow Democrat, state Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, second from left, Republican Pete Peterson, third from left, and Dan Schnur, a USC professor running as an independent, far right. The Associated Press/Rich Pedroncelli



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