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Published in Print: October 20, 2004, as Two State Education Veterans Seek U.S. Senate Seats

Two State Education Veterans Seek U.S. Senate Seats

Schools Just One Issue for South Carolina Chief, Florida Ex-Commissioner

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State schools chiefs don’t often seek election to the U.S. Senate. But this year, Democrats Inez Tenenbaum, the incumbent chief in South Carolina, and Betty Castor, a former Florida commissioner, are doing just that.

Ms. Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s 53-year-old elected state superintendent of education since 1997, argues that her broad experience as a lawyer, children’s advocate, and legislative counsel have prepared her well to fill the shoes of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat who was first elected in 1966.

Her Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint, rode the support of many religious conservatives in South Carolina when he was first elected to Congress in 1998. The 53-year-old owner of a Greenville, S.C., marketing and advertising firm hopes to ride President Bush’s powerful coattails to victory here.

Ms. Castor, 63, who was Florida’s elected state commissioner of education from 1987 to 1993, faces Mel Martinez, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development for nearly three years in the current Bush administration. The 58-year-old Republican would be the nation’s first Cuban-born U.S. senator.

One of the Sunshine State candidates will fill the seat of retiring Sen. Bob Graham, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party nomination for president this year.

The two Senate races may be among the tightest nationally in November, and they could play pivotal roles in determining whether Senate Republicans keep their majority. They currently hold 51 seats.

Ms. Tenenbaum and Ms. Castor both are portraying themselves as political moderates who care more about public service than partisanship.

“Party affiliation is not the most important thing to me,” Ms. Tenenbaum said in an interview here on Sept. 28, adding that she considers herself “a much more independent person” than her opponent, whom she calls an “ideologue.”

Ms. Tenenbaum, whose personality appears equal parts Southern lady and shrewd politician, said she would work for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and advocate on Capitol Hill for teachers and others in education.

Debating Education

“I do believe educators are going to turn out to support me, because I would be their voice in Washington,” she said over breakfast at a cafe in a converted five-and-dime store in downtown Columbia.

She wants to see the No Child Left Behind law “significantly amended” to include standard state definitions for proficiency on tests and to ease requirements that most students with disabilities take standardized tests. “It puts the child under a lot of stress,” she argued.

Ms. Tenenbaum, who taught elementary school for three years in Georgia, said she plans to push for more federal money for early-childhood education and family-literacy programs, if elected the state’s first female U.S. senator.

Realizing the popularity of President Bush in this state, she praised his Reading First program for providing much-needed training dollars for states. “It makes a tremendous impact on teacher professional development,” she said.

She opposes the use of publicly financed tuition vouchers for private schools, while Mr. DeMint, who serves on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has introduced legislation to provide income-tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools. His campaign did not respond to repeated telephone calls.

The Republican has blamed South Carolina’s education woes in part on his opponent—including the nation’s lowest SAT-score averages and a high school completion rate of only about 50 percent. Ms. Tenenbaum has responded with ads accusing Mr. DeMint of insulting educators in the state.

Ms. Tenenbaum’s campaign has found momentum in recent weeks for two reasons. First, the Democrat has pounded Mr. DeMint for his bill to eliminate federal income taxes and replace them with a 23-cent national sales tax. Ms. Tenenbaum has labeled the plan, which is not considered likely to pass anytime soon, a tax increase on the middle class.

Second, Mr. DeMint drew fire for saying during an Oct. 3 debate that he opposes allowing gay men and lesbians to work as public school teachers. He later apologized, but added that single pregnant women shouldn’t be teachers, either. Ms. Tenenbaum called the Republican’s comments about gay teachers “un-American,” adding that she supports equal rights despite her opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage.

In recent weeks, improvements in South Carolina’s test scores and numbers of schools meeting test-score targets under the No Child Left Behind Act also may have boosted public opinion of Ms. Tenenbaum.

“I inherited a program that was in the basement. All I can do is keep climbing the ladder out of the basement,” the state superintendent said of Mr. DeMint’s view that she’s responsible for an education system that lags much of the nation in other comparisons. “We still have a long way to go.”

Mr. DeMint has made clear his unwavering support for President Bush’s policies in the war on terror. Ms. Tenenbaum has tried to take the same tack, seeking to appeal to South Carolina’s large military constituency.

“It’s still an uphill race for Tenenbaum,” said John Simpkins, a political science professor at Furman University and the associate director of its Richard W. Riley Institute for Government, Politics, and Public Leadership.

Considering that Mr. DeMint might ride the president’s coattails in a state Mr. Bush is expected to carry easily on Nov. 2, Mr. Simpkins said recent polls show the Republican holds a slight lead in the Senate race, with the margin narrowing to near-even this month.

Hastings Wyman, the editor of the Southern Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter, also gives Mr. DeMint a slight edge in South Carolina. But he said Ms. Castor was the close favorite in Florida. He and other experts on state politics said last week that they knew of no state education chiefs who had gone on to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Florida Fray

Both Ms. Tenenbaum and Ms. Castor could prove influential on school policy as the federal government’s role in education continues to grow, Mr. Wyman added. “They’d certainly be regarded as more knowledgeable” if they’re elected, he said.

Ms. Castor, whose staff canceled a scheduled interview with Education Week, portrays herself as a political bridge builder.

The former president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Ms. Castor also served as a state senator and taught children in east Africa as a young woman. She would be the second woman ever to represent Florida in the U.S. senate.

“I have a proven record serving all the people of Florida, working across party lines and getting real results,” she was quoted as saying after winning the Democratic Party nomination on Aug. 31.

On education, Ms. Castor, who is also a former president of the University of South Florida in Tampa, has said she would push for more demanding high school courses, tax deductions for college tuition and workforce training, and changes in the No Child Left Behind Act to provide more flexibility to the states. She also supports helping schools with low test scores, “not neglecting them,” according to her education plan.

Mr. Martinez, who served as the elected administrator of Orange County, which includes Orlando, before joining the Bush Cabinet, supports private school vouchers. Closely aligned with President Bush and a self-described social conservative, he would be the state’s first U.S. senator of Hispanic descent. Only three Hispanics have served in the Senate.

Frances Marine, a Martinez campaign spokeswoman, attacked Ms. Castor’s education record last week, saying Florida test scores dropped during her time as state education commissioner. She said Mr. Martinez supports the No Child Left Behind Act and strict school accountability endorsed by Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, also a Republican.

PHOTO: South Carolina schools chief Inez Tenenbaum, above, shakes hands with Rep. Jim DeMint, her rival for the U.S. Senate.
—Mic Smith/AP
PHOTO: Left, former Florida chief Betty Castor is running in her state.
—Chris O’Meara/AP

Vol. 24, Issue 08, Page 8

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