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12-Candidate Field Clouds Calif. Superintendent's Race

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A crowded field of candidates in the race for superintendent of public instruction and an uninterested electorate have left many observers wary of what could happen in California's nonpartisan primary next week.

With a field of 12 candidates, observers are not expecting anyone to get the majority vote necessary to be declared the outright winner. And education officials say the race may be completely up for grabs.

"People are a little nervous,'' one education lobbyist said last week. "The fear is that, because of the bizarre nature of the primary, neither of the most prominent candidates could end up in the run-off.''

The leading contenders are two Democrats: Maureen DiMarco, the education adviser to the state's Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, and Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, the chairwoman of the Assembly's education committee.

But campaign officials for both candidates acknowledge that they are not sure of enough support to make the run-off that will pit the top two finishers against each other in November.

"The one thing I'm convinced of is that people will not be making thoughtful, well-informed decisions on this race,'' Cliff Staton, Ms. Eastin's campaign consultant, said. "People have basically turned down the volume on politics in 1994. Our job is to up her name out there in enough places to gain recognition.''

"When you have 52 percent of the people undecided, who is going to emerge from the pack is fairly hard to know,'' Luke Breit, Ms. DiMarco's campaign manager, added.

The 12 contenders are facing off for a $102,000-a-year job won in each of the past three elections by Bill Honig, an outspoken school reformer who was forced to resign in 1993 after being convicted on conflict-of-interest charges. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

The post has since been filled by William D. Dawson, Mr. Honig's chief deputy, who is not running.

What had been anticipated as a showdown between Ms. Eastin and Sen. Gary Hart, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee, failed to materialize after Mr. Hart opted not to run.

A Crowded Field

That prompted many candidates to put their names on the ballot. In addition to Ms. Eastin and Ms. DiMarco, the field includes Joseph Carrabino, a Republican and a former president of the state board of education who frequently clashed with Mr. Honig over policy and management issues, and Wilbert Smith, also a Republican, who gained prominence as a local school board member by stumping the state on behalf of an unsuccessful school-voucher initiative last fall.

Another candidate, Gloria Tuchman, who is dubbed a longshot by analysts but who has fared well in recent polling, is a teacher and school board member who is opposed to the state's bilingual-education program, which she says is wasteful and ineffective.

Ironically, the superintendent's job is drawing unprecedented interest at a time when many officials say its power has been diluted.

The struggles between Mr. Honig and Mr. Carrabino led to a court decision that reinforced the policymaking power of the board over that of the superintendent. And while bills pending in the legislature would restore much of the superintendent's authority, observers said it is unlikely that they will pass until after the elections.

Education advocates have devoted much of their attention to Ms. Eastin and Ms. DiMarco, who have aimed their fire at each other in an effort to show more impressive qualifications for the job.

In recent weeks, Ms. Eastin has criticized the Wilson administration, which includes Ms. DiMarco, for putting a higher priority on prison spending than on education. Ms. Eastin has won the endorsement of the powerful California Teachers Association.

The state Democratic Party has gone to court in an effort to void a provision of the state constitution barring party endorsements in nonpartisan elections, with the intent of giving her its support.

Ms. DiMarco, meanwhile, has pointed out that Ms. Eastin has no K-12 education experience, while pointing to her own involvement as a local school board member and a statewide activist, including a stint as the president of the California School Boards Association in 1990.

Backers also tout Ms. DiMarco as a bipartisan consensus-builder.

"She is clearly the best person to end the education wars,'' Mr. Breit said.

Ms. DiMarco has been endorsed by Wilson Riles, who preceded Mr. Honig and who was known for his own bipartisanship in working with former Gov. Ronald Reagan.

In a race where scant attention has been paid to issues, observers said the rest of the campaign is likely to amount to a fight to be noticed.

"None of them are really in the public's mind at this point,'' Jan Anderson, a spokesman for the C.T.A., said.

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