The most expensive political contest in California is for an office nobody’s heard of
On Tuesday, California may not have a suspenseful governor’s race, but the contest for an obscure state education post has attracted an astonishing amount of outside money and turned into a high-stakes test run for the 2016 presidential campaign.
It is the most expensive candidate race on the state ballot this election cycle and certainly the most contentious. An estimated $30 million, or roughly three times the money consumed by the governor’s race, is being spent.
The contest pits two bastions of the Democratic base against each other: The powerful California Teachers Association, backed by teachers’ unions nationwide, is fighting off a cadre of well-heeled education-reform proponents, including many Silicon Valley supporters of the charter school movement.
Yet the battle for the state superintendent of public instruction, a largely ministerial post, is a harbinger of a possibly perilous schism within the national Democratic Party. The divide could emerge as an intraparty smackdown in 2016 and cause huge discomfort for the next Democratic presidential nominee, who will need both labor and high-tech support.
This state contest is a proving ground for the heightening clash between labor unions and “new” Democratic money, as well as identity politics. It could also signal serious ramifications for the future of K-12 education.
The nominally nonpartisan contest (no party IDs appear on the ballot) pits two Democrats, incumbent Tom Torlakson, heavily supported by unions and the Democratic Party, against challenger Marshall Tuck, a former charter school executive. The state’s teachers’ unions have spent millions of dollars on independent and issue ads supporting Torlakson; the reform coalition, including civil rights organizations, parents’ groups and wealthy Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and national reform proponents, has flooded the zone for Tuck.
The superintendent post has little political power. The governor appoints the state Board of Education and typically has his own education advisers. In any case, the state Department of Education doesn’t directly run California’s schools and has limited policy sway.
There’s usually not a whole lot of voter — or media — interest in this backwater contest. But a recent L.A. Superior Court decision (Vergara v California) invalidated California’s teacher tenure and seniority laws — labeling them unconstitutional.
Teachers’ unions see the decision as potentially lethal — because it threatens job protections under the current hiring-and-firing process — even as educational reformers celebrate it. The decision, if upheld, could have an impact in other states, reformers say, and block unions’ efforts to maintain tenure rules. Soon after the Vergara decision, eight New York families filed suit (Wright v. New York) targeting teacher tenure. Similar lawsuits are in the works in other states.
Tuck, who supports the Vergara decision, has been using it as a sledgehammer, hitting Torlakson hard on the school chief’s move to appeal the ruling. Torlakson “stands with his Sacramento funders and not with students,” Tuck declared in a press release.
Vergara has also shown up in the governor’s race. Governor Jerry Brown, often allied with the state teachers’ union, has weighed in against the decision. His Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, has embraced the ruling and responded with television ads likening the governor’s position to the failure to save a drowning child, shown struggling underwater until rescued by Kashkari. Meanwhile, Brown has not endorsed in the Torlakson-Tuck race.
The latest, and last, pre-election Field poll shows Brown holding a 21-point lead over the unknown and underfunded Kashkari. But it shows a dead heat in the race for superintendent of public instruction, with Tuck and Torlakson each supported by 28 percent of likely voters. A whopping 44 percent remain undecided. The two candidates are also running neck and neck in terms of direct-candidate campaign funding. But this race will be a test of the impact of a late-in-the game infusion of outside money and of the influence of independent expenditure campaign committees on down-ballot contests.
According to EdSource, an education resource engine, Torlakson and Tuck “spent $4.9 million in direct contributions to their campaigns (as of Oct. 18) … outside groups have spent the greatest share of the funds pouring into the race. They have spent a total of $25.1 million … to date, with $6 million of that spent in the past week alone.”
The California Teachers’ Association has spent about $7 million supporting Torlakson. A group called Parents and Teachers for Tuck for State Superintendent 2014 is Tuck’s largest outside supporter. Donors include “real estate developer William Bloomfield Jr., Broad Foundation founder Eli Broad, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Emerson Collective Chair Laurene Powell Jobs.” The group “has spent about $7.5 million on ads.”
In the end, the outcome of the superintendent’s race will be about more than bragging rights and influence. It is a test of whether the reform agenda advocated by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some big-city mayors can overcome the political and financial muscle of the teachers’ unions on solid Democratic turf.
And it can offer clues to the political weather in 2016.
PHOTO (TOP): A woman inserts her ballot into an intake machine in the garage of Tom and Carol Marshall, which was made into a polling location in the neighborhood, during the presidential election in Los Angeles, California, Nov. 6, 2012. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
PHOTO (INSERT 1) Teacher Kennis Wong (L) points to Chinese characters on the board at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Los Angeles, California, April 11, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
PHOTO (INSERT 2): The entrance to Malibu High School is pictured in Malibu, California, Oct. 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center, March 8, 2014. REUTERS/David McNew