Race for Lt. Governor in Miss. Divides Unions
The Mississippi Association of Educators did something recently that had never happened before: The state's largest teachers' union endorsed a Republican for lieutenant governor.
This despite the fact that Bill Hawks is running on an education platform nearly identical to that of his Democratic counterpart, Amy Tuck, and that the union has never before endorsed a Republican for any high state office.
The union was in the fortunate position of being able to choose between "friends" of public schools, said Michael Marks, the president of the 10,000-member National Education Association affiliate.
While most attention in Mississippi has focused on the Nov. 2 governor's race, the contest for the second-ranking office is considered crucial, educators there say.
As the chairman of the state Senate, they point out, the lieutenant governor can put education bills on the fast track or shunt them into legislative limbo.
Focus on Schools
Just three governors' seats are up for grabs in next month's off-year elections. And with incumbents seeking re-election in Kentucky and Louisiana, the statewide races in Mississippi--where Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice is retiring--are perhaps the most closely watched.
In both the governor's and lieutenant governor's races, education has shaped up as the central issue for voters in the Magnolia State.
"The intensity of the focus on education is somewhat different this year," said William Lewis, the executive director of the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, a nonpartisan political-advocacy group. "It's not coming from just one party or the other. Both seem to have a sense of urgency about this issue."
Both the MAE and the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers have shown strong support in the gubernatorial matchup for Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat they credit with garnering support for an 8 percent raise for teachers this past spring.
His Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. Mike Parker, has also indicated support for raising teacher salaries, but says increased pay ought to be tied to a teacher's education level and classroom performance.
"I support a teacher pay raise, but I want to make sure that it actually raises our children's test scores," Mr. Parker said in a statement. Mr. Musgrove countered in a recent debate that the state has already raised school and teacher accountability by requiring district report cards that detail school performance levels.
But the unions disagree over their choice for lieutenant governor. Both candidates have shown strong support for smaller classes and higher salaries in a state that typically ranks among the three lowest in teacher pay. And, with a few exceptions, both Mr. Hawks and Ms. Tuck have voting records as state senators that reflect a commitment to schools.
The MAE ultimately endorsed the Republican because "there was an aura of integrity around Bill Hawks," Mr. Marks said. "The same could not be said for Amy Tuck."
That view can be traced back to the state's Democratic primary, when Ms. Tuck defeated Grey Ferris, a former chairman of the Senate education committee and the MAE's original choice.
In the weeks before the primary, fliers implicating Mr. Ferris in the recent death of his teenage daughter--who reportedly died after a long struggle with an eating disorder--were anonymously distributed throughout the state. Though Ms. Tuck and her campaign aides vehemently denied any connection to the fliers, the incident left a bad taste.
And the MAE leadership was also upset when, after the union had officially endorsed Mr. Ferris for the primary, several of its former presidents obtained the union's mailing list and sent out letters that gave a false impression that the association had actually endorsed Ms. Tuck.
"It seems like there is a pattern here," Mr. Marks said.
Staff members at the state's American Federation of Teachers affiliate, meanwhile, support Ms. Tuck and say they are shocked at the MAE's nod to the Republican.
Maryann Graczyk, the president of the Mississippi federation, points to Mr. Hawks' vote in favor of sustaining Gov. Fordice's veto of a 1997 bill that would have increased state spending for poor districts as a sign that he is not the best advocate for schools.
"He may be a fine person, but we need somebody in there who is knowledgeable about education and is a fighter for education," Ms. Graczyk said.
Incumbent Govs. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky and Mike Foster of Louisiana, meanwhile, are waging strong campaigns based largely on their education records.
Mr. Patton, a Democrat first elected in 1995, has been highlighting a record of greater access to technology in schools and increased spending on education. He is widely expected to win the race against Republican Peppy Martin, a publicist, and a Reform Party candidate, businessman Gatewood Galbraith.
In Louisiana, Mr. Foster is considered the front-runner in an Oct. 23 primary in which he will face candidates from both parties. The two candidates with the most votes will then face off in a Nov. 20 runoff, unless one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the primary vote.
The Republican governor recently received an unexpected challenge when state Sen. Tom Greene entered the race in September. Mr. Greene, who supports state-financed vouchers for students at low-performing schools, is the only other conservative Republican in the race.
Mr. Foster has signaled that he would support a more limited, pilot voucher program as well as other parental-choice options for students in failing schools.
All candidates, including, U.S. Rep. William Jefferson and businessman Phil Preis, both of whom are Democrats, favor continuing the rigorous accountability program created during the Foster administration.
Vol. 19, Issue 7, Pages 20,22