You might wonder why you should care about the Nov. 4 California State Superintendent of Public Instruction race. There's a good chance you didn't wonder, ever. But the heart of the Democratic Party is up for grabs, making this a bit of a big deal.
Party operatives and the two candidates, Marshall Tuck and Tom Torlakson, would dispute that assertion. But the race is, in fact, a battle between two distinct wings of California's Democratic Party — the labor-union side and the reformer side — and the race is about two very different paths for California's public schools and those who attend and teach in them.
Tom Torlakson, the incumbent from the San Francisco Bay Area, is backed by nearly every ring in the Democrats' big tent -— more than 300 endorsements from teachers unions, special interest groups and Democratic politicians and clubs. He's shored up the pro-choice vote, the firefighters, the police, the Teamsters and environmental groups. Yep, even Big Green is involved.
Meanwhile, Marshall Tuck of Los Angeles is backed heavily by billionaires — including the wife of Steve Jobs — and a much larger group of small donors. Tuck has far fewer endorsements, but charismatic Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson and former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are on his side.
And a slice of Hollywood rallied to give Tuck one of the funniest political ads ever, showing Tuck explaining the race to a group of celebrities including Adam Scott and Kristen Bell. Tuck also made a clean sweep of endorsements from California's major daily newspapers, most of whom are normally pro-union, but all of whom are apparently done with Torlakson.
If Torlakson wins, schools could use extra funds to make dramatic improvements, but there probably won't be radical changes. If Tuck wins, however, he'll have a mandate to give parents more charter schools and weed out and fire ineffective teachers.
A Tuck win would rock California's Democratic establishment, then reverberate nationally.
Torlakson says that California schools have improved under his leadership, albeit slightly, and that more change is coming. Graduation rates are up and he's helped many financially distressed districts.
Tuck argues that improvement during Torlakson's time as superintendent has been negligible at best. He's pushing for reforms such as using student test scores to evaluate teachers' competency and simplifying the state's education code so that public schools can operate more freely, like charter schools.
He lauds his success in launching charter schools in L.A., as well as the Partnership for L.A. Schools, a nonprofit he ran (created by Villaraigosa) that is working to fix 17 failing schools and has seen substantial success at 99th Street Middle School, Jordan High and Roosevelt High.
The candidates also are on opposite sides of the state Superior Court's Vergara decision, which struck down large parts of job-protection laws that in LAUSD grant lifetime tenure after two years of classroom experience.
Using his authority, Torlakson appealed the divisive Vergara decision, saying he instead supports a law under which tenured teachers could be fired for "egregious misconduct." Tuck says that, if elected, he would drop Torlakson's appeal.
Tuck and Torlakson try to play down the split in the party by taking shots at one another.
Torlakson alludes to people "who aren't aware of the changes we are making, and somehow think some other kind of reform might be better than what we're doing."
Tuck says, "There are certainly different views within the party: Some folks are strongly backing the status quo ... and others who want to see fundamental change in schools."
California Democratic Party vice chair Eric Bauman, a major player in the labor-union wing who endorsed Torlakson, also played down the increasingly noticeable divide.
He concedes that some Democrats favor Tuck-type reforms, but "there's a whole hell of a lot more Democrats who believe teachers should be paid well, treated with respect, given the opportunity to teach their kids ..."
Editorial boards around the state certainly appear to challenge his view, pointing to a rising movement on the reform side.
The L.A. Times editorial board called the Tuck/Torklakson contest "a strange rift in education, in which liberal Democrats are sharply divided," while the San Diego Union-Tribune called it "a deep divide within the Democratic Party."
Torlakson routinely refers to Tuck as a "Wall Street banker," hoping to persuade voters that his opponent is in the pocket of business. The San Jose Mercury News' editorial page called the attack a "hack cliché."
It's true that Tuck has support from the business community. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, spent at least $200,000 on his race. L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad spent more than $1 million and Bill Bloomfield, the one-time Republican who changed parties to challenge Henry Waxman in the last election cycle, has spent at least $1.8 million. Former Enron commodities trader and hedge fund manager John Arnold gave $300,000 to a pro-Tuck PAC. Arnold, of Houston, has jumped into California union battles before, donating $200,000 through his PAC to help place on the state ballot a government employee pension reform plan by San Jose's Democratic mayor, Chuck Reed. It's now on hold until 2015 amidst courtroom wrangling.
Sean Parker, of Napster fame, gave Tuck the personal maximum contribution of $6,800 — that's a relatively small amount, but anyone who's played by Justin Timberlake in a movie is worth mentioning.
Tuck can't entirely dismiss the claim that he's too close to business. But while he worked for Salomon Brothers for two years just out of college, he didn't go the Wall Street route in the end. Tuck has spent most of his life in education, mostly as an administrator.
If your first job out of college defines you, as Torlakson has attempted to do with Tuck, Torlakson is a veteran of the Merchant Marines.
Both men's second job out of college was teaching. Torlakson taught high school science and coached track and field while serving on the Antioch City Council in the Bay Area, starting in 1978, and was elected to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. He became a state assemblyman in 1996.
Tuck took a different route, traveling the world for a few years, teaching in Zimbabwe and Thailand and working with orphans in Romania.
Torlakson says this is hardly an "in-depth teacher experience," and refers to himself as the only candidate in the general election with "classroom experience."
Torlakson's cozy relationship with unions who oppose charter schools and other changes is what drove many newspapers to endorse Tuck.
It's no surprise that Torlakson's most fervent supporter is the formidable California Teachers Association, which has 325,000 members. The CTA's Torlakson-specific PAC has spent $2.6 million on his race, with nearly $1.8 million coming from the CTA itself, while the other teachers unions spent approximately $70,000 in independent expenditures.
Rounding out the top donors to Torlakson is the state Democratic Party, which has spent more than $240,000 from its Sacramento war chest to keep fellow Democrat Tuck from winning.
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None of this includes the union and party contributions to Torlakson's candidate fund, which has $609,000 cash on hand and has raised $1.4 million since January. But Tuck appears to be even better off, having raised $1.6 million since the first of the year and having $699,000 cash on hand.
As Meg Whitman could tell you, more money doesn't necessarily mean more votes, but it does mean Tuck has momentum — he's received contributions from 2,350 people, compared with Torlakson's 1,520 contributors.
There's even polling data — a surprising Field Poll showed a slight edge for Tuck, with 31 percent of likely voters choosing Tuck if the election were held that day, and 28 percent backing Torlakson.
That's actually considered a statistical tie, and 41 percent claimed to be undecided anyway. For Democrats, Election Day could go either way.