Many Differences, But Not Much Public Debate In Arizona Superintendent Race

By Jude Joffe-Block
Published: Wednesday, October 22, 2014 - 12:30pm
Updated: Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 3:17pm
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(Photo by Jude Joffe-Block - KJZZ)
David Garcia, right, at a candidate forum on Univision earlier this month.

We don’t yet know who the new Arizona state Superintendent of Public Instruction will be, but we do know the current one is out.

This June, John Huppenthal was exposed for posting anonymous comments on political blogs. In one, he denounced Spanish-language media, saying quote, “This is America, speak English.”

In another, he referred to welfare recipients as lazy pigs.

At a June press conference, Huppenthal gave a tearful apology, saying the comments “are not what is in my mind, they don’t reflect the love that is in my heart.”

Even so, Huppenthal lost his re-election bid in the Republican primary. Badly.

The winner was Diane Douglas, a former school board president aligned with the Tea Party. She has one key issue: stopping the national education standards known as Common Core.

“The issue of this debate, of this election is who controls the education of our children,” Douglas said during a Clean Elections debate hosted by the local PBS affiliate. “Is it the Washington insiders and the special interests of corporate America, or is it the parents of Arizona, the parents all across the nation who have the first and foremost say in the education of their children?”

Douglas didn’t respond to our request for an interview for this story.

Furthermore, since participating in that debate, Douglas has declined to appear with her Democratic opponent.

So on a recent afternoon, only the Democrat in this race, David Garcia, arrived at Univision’s TV studio for a candidate forum.

“It was supposed to have been a debate, but my opponent is not showing up for much these days,” Garcia said. “So I’m here solo.”

Garcia is a fourth-generation Arizonan of Mexican descent. If he wins, he would be the first Latino to be elected to statewide office in 40 years.

Some analysts speculate it’s not in Douglas’ interest to debate Garcia.

He is a former associate superintendent and an education professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Douglas’ campaign website lists past experience as an accountant and a stained glass instructor. She served on the governing board of the Peoria Unified School District from 2005 to 2012 and was board president for two years.

Unlike Douglas, Garcia supports Common Core so Arizona can measure its students against those in other states. Garcia also wants more Arizona students to graduate academically proficient in two languages, which is an issue that’s close to home for him.

Garcia and his wife made a point of learning Spanish as a second language so they could teach their two daughters at a young age. At the live forum on Univision he’s decided to speak in Spanish, but he admits it’s a bit nerve-wracking.

“I’m not good enough yet to just turn it on and off, I still have to think a little bit in both,” Garcia said.

Garcia said learning a new language has made him identify with kids who  are learning English in Arizona’s public schools — which has long been the subject of political and legal controversy here.

Garcia believes he can be a role model for Arizona’s school-age population, which is majority-minority.

“Most of those students are Latinos,” Garcia said. “And I think it is important they are able to see their face in the face of their leaders.”

The last Latino to be elected to statewide office was former governor Raul Castro in 1974. While another Latino, Jaime Molera, served as state Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2001 to 2003, he was appointed – not elected – to the post.

Even though Garcia is a Democrat, he’s been endorsed by two past superintendents who served as Republicans, Molera and Lisa Graham Keegan.

They called Douglas’ stance on Common Core destructive and too extreme.

Garcia also has the support of business groups and the state’s major newspapers.

Political analyst Chris Herstam said Garcia needs that kind of support to win, since Douglas has the advantage of having more registered Republicans in the state.

“People do tend to gravitate to their own political party nominee when they get down to that level on the ballot,” Herstam said.

Herstam supports Garcia. But he said there’s another factor that could work against Garcia.

“Let’s never underestimate racism in this state,” Herstam said. “There’s a reason why we have not elected a Latino [to statewide office] in 40 years.”

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