Calif. Vote Brings New Voices To Policy Debates

By Joetta L. Sack — March 13, 2002 5 min read
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Two come-from-behind candidates advanced in California’s March 5 primary elections, bringing unexpected voices to the state’s debate on education and its struggling economy.

Republican businessman and political novice Bill Simon will challenge Gov. Gray Davis next fall for the governorship of California, after defeating former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan last week.

But political analysts say his conservative views might make for a difficult race in November against Gov. Davis—even though the incumbent is saddled with a huge budget gap and low voter confidence.

While Mr. Simon’s agenda promoted tougher accountability and more school construction aid, observers say other issues dominated the Republican primary.

In the nonpartisan race for state superintendent of public instruction, Katherine H. Smith, the board president of the Anaheim Union High School District, posted a surprising second-place finish. She ousted a better- known contender, GOP Assemblywoman Lynne C. Leach, to force a November runoff with state Sen. Jack T. O’Connell, a Democrat and the top vote-getter.

Though the primary elections offered a host of bond issues and a full slate of elections for state offices, California’s voter turnout was at a near-record low.

In the GOP race for a shot at the governor’s mansion, Mr. Simon attacked Mr. Riordan as a friend of President Clinton and not a “real Republican.” The label—along with a barrage of ads from Gov. Davis’ camp targeting Mr. Riordan, whom Democrats had feared was the strongest GOP hopeful—had the intended effect. Mr. Simon pulled ahead of Mr. Riordan just days before the primary elections.

In the end, Mr. Simon won 49.4 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Riordan’s 31.6 percent. California Secretary of State Bill Jones collected 16.9 percent of the vote. In a show of party unity, Mr. Riordan vowed to campaign for Mr. Simon in a “crusade to get rid of Gray Davis.”

Gov. Davis seized the Democratic nomination with 81 percent of the vote against token opposition.

Looking Ahead

Unlike the 1998 gubernatorial race, in which education was the top issue, schools have been overshadowed this campaign season by the state’s budget shortfall and energy crisis.

“While education is still a top issue, it did not emerge in the primary as an issue,” said Michael W. Kirst, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education and a professor of education at Stanford University. “That was suggested by the fact none of these [gubernatorial candidates] had a well-designed or factual education plan.”

That is likely to change in coming months, however, when Mr. Simon refines his platform to take on Mr. Davis, who opened his first year in Sacramento, the state capital, with a special session on education in 1999 and who has made schools a defining issue of his tenure.

So far, Mr. Simon—a multimillionaire investment banker whose father, William E. Simon, was U.S. secretary of the treasury under Presidents Nixon and Ford—has outlined an education plan that seeks more accountability from schools and administrators and would require each school to write performance goals. In addition, he wants to impose penalties when students are not taught to read in English by 3rd grade, but has not yet released details of that plan. Mr. Simon also wants to reduce bureaucracy at the state and district levels and give more power to local schools, generate funds for school construction, and rewrite existing laws to increase the number of charter schools.

“I’m running for governor because our policy debate has grown stale,” he said during a recent speech on education, adding that state-level discussions on schools are most in need of new ideas.

Gov. Davis, meanwhile, is touting his education accomplishments, such as raising the state share of school expenditures and giving cash awards to schools that improve on state exams. He wants to continue raising school construction funds and teacher salaries.

Athough they have not always agreed, the California Teachers Association is planning to endorse Gov. Davis, said Wayne Johnson, the president of the National Education Association affiliate.

"[Mr. Simon’s] education agenda will be very troubling to us,” Mr. Johnson said. “When you look at the underfunding of schools and the tremendous amount of problems, California is faced with some pretty awesome tasks to overcome. Gray Davis is better equipped to handle those.”

Race for Chief

In the race for the post of state schools superintendent, which is executive officer and secretary of the state board of education and head of the department of education, Sen. O’Connell won 41.8 percent of the vote. He had hoped to gain at least 50 percent of the vote, which would have won him the election outright.

Instead, Mr. O’Connell will face Ms. Smith, who won 28.3 percent, edging out Assemblywoman Leach. Though Ms. Leach had the backing of the state Republican Party, she drew just 26.1 percent of the votes cast.

The victor in the November runoff will replace two-term state schools chief Delaine Eastin, a former Democratic state lawmaker who has been a powerful force in the state despite often butting heads with Mr. Davis, as well as former Gov. Pete Wilson, on school issues.

Ms. Smith, a former private school teacher, has made conquering school violence her mission in politics. She took her two sons out of public schools in the early 1980s and later won a seat on the Anaheim school board, where she advocated school uniforms, a return to student lockers in schools, and a moment of silence and inspirational quotes to begin the school day.

Her platform calls for using the superintendent’s post to lobby for releasing drug offenders from prison earlier and giving them vocational and technical education services. She also wants to create more incentives to help recruit and retain teachers, and to initiate report cards for parents that measure their parenting skills.

“There are lots of things to bring the broken puzzle pieces back together,” she said in an interview last week. She spent about $15,000 on her primary campaign, she added.

Meanwhile, Mr. O’Connell, who launched an extensive advertising campaign, is the well-known chief author of California’s landmark 1996 class-size-reduction legislation. The law triggered a six-year, $8 billion spending spree to cap class sizes at 20 students in thousands of primary classrooms statewide.

As the chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee on education, Mr. O’Connell also backed higher teacher salaries and increased funding for school construction. He won the endorsements of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, and most of the state’s major newspapers.

Mr. Johnson of the CTA said he was banking on a win by Mr. O’Connell. But Mr. Kirst noted that the schools chief’s job has lost visibility and prestige in recent years, as the governor’s office has taken a stronger role in crafting education policy.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Calif. Vote Brings New Voices To Policy Debates


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