The morning after she went public with plans to run for state Sen. Jim Beall’s seat in 2020, Ann Ravel found herself back where it all started.
On Tuesday, surrounded by old colleagues in the Santa Clara County Government Center where she launched her storied career, the 69-year-old Los Gatos resident listened to the author of a book that inspired her to become an attorney in the first place.
Ravel says she walked up to John Dean—the former White House lawyer whose testimony about the Watergate break-in helped topple President Richard Nixon—before a scheduled talk to express gratitude for the unwitting role he played in her life.
“I told him, ‘You know, I have you to thank for starting my career at the county,’” says Ravel, an attorney at San Jose-based law firm McManis Faulkner and senior fellow focused on digital deception in politics for nonprofit think-tank MapLight. “There was only one woman at the county counsel’s office when I applied for the job, and the reason that I was appointed was because, in my interview, I talked about John Dean’s book and about lawyers’ ethics and responsibilities.”
It was 1976 when she read Blind Ambition and the same year when she got the job as county counsel. Decades later, President Barack Obama appointed Ravel to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which Congress created in the wake of Nixon’s resignation to prevent the kind of illicit campaign donations exposed by the Watergate scandal.
By the time Ravel came aboard in 2013, however, partisan gridlock between the three Democrats and as many Republicans on the panel prevented it from fulfilling its role of reining in abuse. Her dramatic exit just a couple of months before her term ended in 2017 brought national attention to the dysfunction and elevated her as one of the most prominent critics of “dark money” in U.S. politics.
“Our campaign finance system should promote citizen engagement and participation in the political process instead of disenchantment with democracy,” the outspoken regulator wrote in her resignation letter, which she addressed to President Donald Trump. “People from all walks of life should be able to run for office without having to seek out wealthy donors, or be wealthy themselves, to win. And, all political spending should be transparent to encourage trust in our political system.”
Ravel says she’ll heed her own advice in the bid to succeed fellow Democrat Beall in District 15, which spans a wide swath of the South Bay from East San Jose to Cupertino. It’s a race that will require raising enough to compete against a crowded field, including former Assemblywoman Nora Campos, Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis and recently termed out county Supervisor Ken Yeager.
“For certain, I believe in absolutely transparency,” says Ravel, who chaired California’s Fair Political Practices Commission before serving her four years on its federal counterpart. “I will be transparent and open in anything I do. And I will not accept corporate PAC money, even though that will be a double-edged sword.”
But Ravel says she wants to win, and will have to work within the existing order to secure a place where she can try to change it.
“It’s not the politicians necessarily who are bad, it’s the system that’s bad,” she explains. “In order to get elected, you have to be viable, you have to raise money, and it’s hard to raise money from small donors—although I’m going to try my best to do that because I think more people should be included and engaged. But the reality is that we’re in a system where the wealthy, where the corporations, where the unions and other interest groups are the ones financing campaigns.”
No matter who supports her, Ravel says, she commits to remaining independent.
“There will be no correlation to what I decide to do as a senator and what anybody contributes to me,” she says. “I will promise that.”
Though government accountability will no doubt play a defining role in her campaign, Ravel says she decided to run for reasons far closer to home. Seeing her grown children struggle to afford to live in the place they grew up and seeing the freeways increasingly snarled in traffic inspired her to consider a shift to the legislative side of government—which would be a first in her long tenure of public service.
“I’ve spent my career trying to make a difference in the community and for people,” she says. “I mean, seriously, I never thought before I would run for public office because I’d always played an advisory role. But my heart is in public policy, and I feel that here’s a chance for me to make a difference.”