Moderation the Theme in Gubernatorial Races

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When the results of last week's balloting showed that he would become California's first Democratic governor in 16 years, Gray Davis spoke almost immediately of his first priority: fixing the public schools.

Telling his supporters his triumph was "a clear affirmation that Californians want to take a moderate path to the future," he then turned to education. ''We must challenge the orthodoxy and find a new way of doing business in our schools because nothing less than the future of our kids is at stake," the governor-elect proclaimed.

As the 36 governors' races came to a close, Mr. Davis was just one of many victors who had campaigned extolling the virtues of centrist approaches--more money for more accountability--to education reform. With both parties maintaining nearly the same number of governors' seats as they had before the Nov. 3 elections, it was neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, but the perceived moderates of both parties, who typically won the day.

"The candidates who were pragmatic and pro-education won, and it was very clear," said Frank Newman, the president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

"Education was a winning issue across the board," added Patty Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the National Governors' Association in Washington. "I couldn't look at the platform and guess the party."

Next year, based on unoffical election results, Republican governors will hold office in 31 states, down from the current 32, while an Independent and the Reform Party will claim one state each. While Democrats will still have just 17 governorships, their win in the bellwether state of California was seen as particularly significant.

California education advocates say they are hopeful the election of Mr. Davis, combined with the re-election of Democratic schools chief Delaine Eastin and strengthened Democratic majorities in the legislature, will put an end to the partisan sparring over education that typified outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's relationship with Ms. Eastin.

The opportunity is ripe for education reform "to be front and center in California," said Gary Hart, the director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform in Sacramento. "I think there will be less tugging and pulling, and hopefully everyone will be on the same page working together."

Both Mr. Davis and his Republican opponent, outgoing Attorney General Daniel E. Lungren, trumpeted education platforms that backed state standards, promised increased state aid for new textbooks, and pushed accountability and professional-development initiatives for teachers. Unlike Mr. Davis, however, Mr. Lungren said he would support publicly funded voucher programs. Based largely on that, Mr. Davis "painted his opponent as a candidate who did not support public education," said Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University. "He turned it into a wedge issue."

Mr. Lungren's loss, when viewed alongside the defeats of voucher supporters Gloria Matta Tuchman, Ms. Eastin's opponent for state superintendent, and Matt Fong, the gop candidate for the U.S. Senate, could be interpreted as a statewide referendum on vouchers, some observers said.

"This is the first time in a while where I've woken up after the election and felt good," said Dale Martin, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association. "It looks like a real endorsement of public education, and against vouchers."

The Florida Message

In Florida, though, an anti-voucher message did not appear to resonate with voters. Carrying 55 percent of the vote, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush soundly defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, despite Mr. MacKay's repeated attempts to portray his opponent as anti-public education. Mr. Bush, a businessman who narrowly lost the 1994 election to Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, has endorsed a plan for increased school-level accountability that would provide a limited number of vouchers to students attending low-performing schools.

Ultimately, however, exit polls revealed that Florida voters did not consider vouchers to be a make-or-break factor in the race, said Susan F. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "The MacKay message was that vouchers are going to destroy public schools," Ms. MacManus said. "But Floridians know that rarely is something all or nothing."

With Mr. Bush's victory, Florida will become the first Southern state since Reconstruction to give Republicans control of both the state legislature and the governor's office.

Elsewhere in the South, Republican incumbents David Beasley in South Carolina and Fob James Jr. in Alabama both lost to Democratic challengers who backed creating state lotteries with revenues targeted to improving public education. Mr. Beasley and Mr. James were the only two incumbent governors voted out of office this year.

The Democratic governors-elect, South Carolina's James H. "Jim" Hodges and Alabama's Don Siegelman, both learned an important lesson from their neighboring state of Georgia, said Jim Watts, the vice president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board.

"The lesson learned there was the Zell Miller lesson ... to be specific about where the proceeds of the lottery are going," Mr. Watts said, referring to Georgia's outgoing Democratic governor, who tied his state's lottery to popular college-scholarship and prekindergarten programs.

Mr. Hodges made education a top priority in other aspects of his campaign as well, pushing plans for class-size reduction and increased teacher training, while emphasizing that student performance in South Carolina had dropped during Mr. Beasley's four years in office.

Mr. Hodges' "sole message was education," said Evelyn Berry, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association. "From the day he was nominated, he said education is the message and it is the only message. For Governor Beasley, [education] was one of his planks, but it wasn't his only plank."

Incumbents Hold On

But most incumbent governors emerged victorious, despite what had been considered strong challenges in states like Maryland, Massachusetts, and Hawaii.

Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, defeated Republican challenger Ellen Sauerbrey by a margin of more than 10 percentage points, even though pre-election polls indicated a much closer race. Ms. Sauerbrey, a former state legislator and one-time high school biology teacher, lambasted Mr. Glendening for putting tax dollars into the construction of professional sports stadiums instead of public schools. Mr. Glendening responded by highlighting his education record, noting that state school aid has increased by 30 percent since he took office four years ago.

Acting Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican seeking election in his own right, also prevailed over Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat who vowed to serve as chairman of the sometimes-controversial state school board if he were elected the commonwealth's chief executive. Troubled by teacher candidates' poor showing on the state's first-ever teacher-licensing test this past spring, Mr. Cellucci included mandatory testing of all teachers as a part of his education platform.

Democratic Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano won re-election in Hawaii by a margin of just 1 point, defeating Linda Lingle, the Republican mayor of Maui, who had called for the decentralization of Hawaii's single-district education system.

Meanwhile, some races for open governorships yielded unexpected results:

  • Minnesotans elected Reform Party candidate and former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura over Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, a Democrat, and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican. Mr. Ventura's running mate, Mae Schunk, is a veteran elementary teacher in the 12,000-student St. Paul school district.
  • Iowa voters chose state Sen. Tom Vilsack as their first Democratic governor in more than 30 years, following the 16-year tenure of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who chose not to seek re-election this fall.

With talk of education dominating stump speeches throughout the election season, the onus is now on the re-elected governors and the governors-elect to make good on campaign promises--a political reality that observers say bodes well for public schools.

"There's going to be enormous pressure to act on the education agenda," Mr. Levine said. "They've got to do something."

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 13-14

Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Moderation the Theme in Gubernatorial Races
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