Coverdell Education Record at Heart of Re-Election Run

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There are two Senate seats in Georgia: a safe one and a hot one.

While Democrat Max Cleland, elected in 1996, apparently has settled comfortably into the perch once held by longtime Sen. Sam Nunn, a fellow Democrat, the other seat has bounced between the two parties over the past 20 years. Going into the midterm election season, most analysts said that seat would again be up for grabs.

If the flip-flopping tradition continues, Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell will lose his seat next week to Democratic challenger Michael Coles, the Great American Cookie Co. mogul. But history may not be repeated this time. Earlier this month, Mr. Coverdell was well ahead in polls, and part of that showing may be attributable to his education stances.

Mr. Coverdell, a former director of the Peace Corps under President Bush, is being hailed by the GOP for improving the party's image on school policy, an issue that is immensely popular with voters.

Sen. Paul Coverdell

"The senator's record stands for itself," said Lea McBride, the Coverdell campaign's deputy communications director, adding that the senator's proposals--such as tax-free education savings accounts--resonate with voters.

Mr. Coles, meanwhile, is attacking the incumbent for his votes against Clinton administration proposals to fund class-size reductions and other school measures.

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Michael Coles

Just this month, Mr. Coverdell widened his lead over Mr. Coles to 16 points, according to a statewide poll by Mason-Dixon Research. The incumbent senator's double-digit edge comes toward the end of a campaign marred at times by disputes over truth in advertising and mutual public challenges by the candidates on drug testing. Few are saying the race is over yet.

As the chairman of the Republican Senate Education Task Force, Mr. Coverdell has ushered such GOP-backed measures through Congress as a literacy plan favoring teacher training over recruiting volunteer tutors and a proposal to grant parents tax breaks for K-12 education savings accounts. As a good politician, he also makes sure his constituents know that he has lobbied for impact aid, the $864 million program that compensates school districts for revenues lost because of federal activities within their boundaries.

Both the reading and impact-aid measures were approved in the House and Senate last week, and President Clinton signed the budget package on Oct. 21. The tax-free-accounts plan was vetoed by President Clinton, but could be resurrected next year.

In 1996, Mr. Coverdell's strides since his upset election in 1992, particularly in education, earned him the No. 5 position in the Senate GOP leadership. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has praised him as a hard worker and an up-and-comer. "He has friends in high places. Including me," Mr. Lott has said.

And television spots in Georgia trumpet his education priorities: "Sen. Coverdell has done more to improve America's schools than many senators do in a lifetime."

But Mr. Coverdell's stands on school issues are not, for the most part, the kind that earn lawmakers the endorsements of key education groups.

The 2.4 million-member National Education Association and the 980,000-member American Federation of Teachers both support Mr. Coles, who jumped into the political saddle this year after breaking campaign-finance records in an expensive 1996 loss to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for the 6th Congressional District seat in Georgia.

Mr. Coverdell, 59, who won his last election by fewer than 20,000 votes over the Democratic incumbent, still faces a serious challenge Nov. 3 from Mr. Coles, who has plenty of money and plenty to say about the senator's education record. As of Sept. 30, Mr. Coles, 54, who founded his $100 million company in 1977, had raised $309,333 in campaign donations compared with Mr. Coverdell's $2.35 million war chest. But the cookie executive has loaned himself an additional $1.26 million.

Mr. Coles has hammered Mr. Coverdell for his votes against increased funding for school nutrition programs, school construction, and class-size-reduction.

"We should set as a national goal the reduction of class size to manageable levels ... and we should hire the professional personnel and make the capital investments to make that happen," Mr. Coles told the Georgia Association of Educators last spring. "But that's not what Paul Coverdell believes or how he votes."

Mr. Coverdell has fought back, linking Mr. Coles to the Clinton White House and liberal views on education. Recently, Mr. Coverdell told a Cobb County Republican meeting that he is fulfilling his promise to give local governments more control of their schools.

"My opponent has chosen to ally himself with a different team. The Clinton-Kennedy team," Mr. Coverdell said, tying Mr. Coles to the president and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. "Their formula to solve America's problems is more government, more spending, more taxes, more power to the people on the banks of the Potomac, less power to the people on the banks of the Chattahoochee."

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 24, 27

Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as Coverdell Education Record at Heart of Re-Election Run
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