Campaign '18: Gov Wannabes Woo Educators
The six major candidates to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown made political pitches to several thousand elected school board members in San Diego on Saturday, the first event where all the contenders have shared a stage.
The four top Democrats heard varying levels of enthusiasm, but all were among friends at the annual conference of the California School Board Association, the largest body of elected officials in California, a left-leaning group if only because of its passion for public schools.
The two Republicans, not so much.
“The future of this state will be decided by the quality of education - period,” former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said at one point, winning the loudest cheers of the day.
Six months before the June primary, the session was significant, not only as evidence of how crucial the public school community is to California Democrats who campaign for statewide office, but also as a benchmark of some small but important differences between the four on education policy. As the latest public opinion polls show the two Republicans running far behind the leaders, it also was a demonstration of the difficulty a GOP candidate faces in finishing in the top two in June, and qualifying for a November run-off next year.
Here is a look at how the hopefuls performed:
Delaine Eastin. At 70, the state’s former top schools official, who also served four terms in the Assembly, has been out of office for 15 years, but could not have picked a better audience in beginning a political comeback.
Clearly confident among friends, Eastin received the most enthusiastic support, repeatedly stealing the show with a spirited delivery on her extensive record in education, and specific proposals, such as universal preschool.
Gavin Newsom. The 50-year old Lieutenant Governor, a former mayor of San Francisco, declared for the race back in 2015 and has led consistently, both in the polls and in fundraising since.
Although Eastin won louder ovations, Newsom’s command of both policy and persuasion impressed the wonky crowd, from his support for “a bottom up, not top down approach,” favoring the power of local districts over state mandates, to his comprehensive knowledge of matters like Prop 218, which in 1996 curbed the ways in which local districts can raise revenues from taxpayers.
The only candidate to work the room before the forum began, he ignored the format rules by getting out of his chair to deliver his opening statement and, somewhat astonishingly, was alone in highlighting the potentially devastating impacts of policies backed by President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: “You’re going to need someone who will have your back,” he said in his closing statement.
Antonio Villaraigosa. The 64-year old former Los Angeles Mayor and ex-Assembly Speaker, is running a close second to Newsom, campaigning as a moderate Democratic alternative to the Bay Area ultra-liberal.
Although he has at times run afoul of the public school establishment for his friendship with the school reform movement, Villaraigosa touted his work in Los Angeles to turn around failing schools; he also emphasized his opposition to Proposition 13, for this crowd a perceived culprit for California’s education funding woes.
Highlighting his status as the only Latino in the race, he spoke of his struggles as a high school drop-out who, through affirmative action, was able to graduate from UCLA - “I got in through the back door, but I came out through the front door,” he said to great applause – and, intriguingly, heaped praise on crowd favorite Eastin - “I stand with our children and I stand with Delaine Eastin,” he said – perhaps a play for her eventual support should she finish out of the money in June.
John Chiang. Chiang, 55, is California’s Treasurer and former Controller, and the state’s first major Chinese-American candidate for governor.
Although he is steeped in the substance of public finance, Chiang, in contrast to Newsom, sometimes struggles with the dramatic arts of political campaigning and on Saturday once again displayed a very low-key style. However, he won a big hand when he promised that his first meeting as Governor would be with educators and was smart to be the first to raise the issue on everyone’s minds: charter schools.
Travis Allen. A 44-year old, conservative Republican Assembly member from Huntington Beach, had the distinction of being the only candidate to be jeered at the forum. Appearing either not to know, or not care, that he was speaking to elected school board members, he repeatedly denounced the dismal quality of California’s education system, after somewhat bizarrely beginning his performance by asking for a show of hands of those involved in their local schools.
John Cox. At 62, Cox is a longtime Republican activist, who ran for president in 2008 and is perhaps best known for trying to qualify a ballot measure that would require lawmakers to wear the corporate logos of their top campaign contributors. His pitch was simple: grow the economy and our schools will improve.
The charter school controversy. The Democrats were mostly polite and on their best behavior – except when it came to charter schools, among the most controversial issues in public education.
Villaraigosa jabbed at Newsom, noting that the lieutenant governor’s refusal to endorse a moratorium on charters is at odds with the position of the California Teachers Association, one of the most powerful organizations in Sacramento. Among those following the campaign, however, the move served to highlight the fact that Newsom already has been endorsed by the CTA.
Once again, Eastin scored points here, by differentiating herself forcefully from the pack by endorsing the moratorium, also supported by the NAACP, until stronger reforms are met. All four democrats oppose for profit charter schools.
Bottom line. The clear winner of the day was a strong commitment to California’s public schools by all the candidates and by the elected school board members in the audience, folks who serve long hours often for little or no compensation. I name no names.
Laura Capps, a member of the School Board Association, was elected to the Santa Barbara Unified School District in 2016. A Democratic former aide to President Bill Clinton and Senator Ted Kennedy, she now works as a non-profit consultant and is a regular panelist on Newsmakers TV.
Images: Gavin Newsom speaking to the California School Board Association (Laura Capps); Delaine Eastin; Newsom (Mother Jones); Antonio Villaraigosa (Educationpost.org); John Chiang; Travis Allen (wealthstrategiesgroup.com); John Cox (L.A. Times); the candidates shake hands following Saturday's event; Laura Capps.