Sunday, July 26, 2009




Few state officials or activists have been more vocal during California’s long-running budget battles than Jack O’Connell, the state’s two term school superintendent who hopes to become its next governor.

O’Connell has spoken often and loudly against the approximately $5 billion in cuts to education that have either been enacted in the last year or proposed by current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders, decrying them as the worst possible thing California could do.

“This is devastating the schools,” he said, noting that his office has just handed Oakland’s public schools back to the local school board after years of running them because previous managers had run out of money. When a school district becomes insolvent, the state often takes it over. O’Connell notes with bitterness that the current and proposed cuts threaten to push 89 other districts into that sad condition.

O’Connell has appeared peripatetic in recent months, traveling almost anywhere to tell parents, voters and reporters that the state has no business shortchanging the future.

Since public schools are about the most popular political cause in this state, that might – just might – create a political opening through which O’Connell might waltz in his effort to beat the far more visible and better-funded Attorney General Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, the other significant Democratic candidates for governor.

Just now, they are essentially writing him off. “There were four of us, and now I’m one of only two,” Newsom told a Democratic audience the other night, referring to gubernatorial dropouts Antonio Villaraigosa and John Garamendi, the Los Angeles mayor and California lieutenant governor, both of whom once were considered viable candidates. No mention of O’Connell.

O’Connell’s situation is a bit like that of Tom Campbell among Republicans. Both are underfunded underdogs hoping one issue can let them overcome prominent opponents. Campbell plans to use his budgetary expertise to get next year’s Republican nomination over two highly visible zillionaire opponents, while O’Connell hopes to parley his advocacy for schools.

“I would be the education governor, for sure,” O’Connell said in an interview. “That’s what motivates me. I have no desire to become President (Brown has failed in two national runs, but some suspect he still has presidential ambitions, and Newsom’s ambition knows no visible bounds). Education has always been my top priority.”

In fact, a conversation with O’Connell about his gubernatorial possibilities always comes back to schools. It’s almost as if, even though he’ll be termed out as superintendent after next year, he still wants to hang onto the job and becoming governor is the only way to do it.

Mention Schwarzenegger, and O’Connell says, “I’ve been disappointed. He’s been a failure in funding education, the budget and he’s had no new initiatives with the schools except wanting to require algebra in the eighth grade, which isn’t happening. But it’s not just education; he’s been a disappointment overall. Just look where he’s gotten the state.”

How would O’Connell do better? “As governor, my measure of success would be test scores and academic achievement. Also, government’s first and foremost objective is the health and safety of its citizens. So early release of prisoners as Schwarzenegger wants to do would not be an option for me. We need a better health care system and we need to work better with the federal government.”

O’Connell points out that when a state senator from Santa Barbara County, he wrote the law that now prohibits new offshore oil drilling platforms, a law he says has furthered economic development by encouraging the tourist and fishing industries. He says he’d expand California's green initiatives, advocating, for one example, that virtually every car in the state’s fleet should be a gas/electric hybrid.

All those other things are great, but O’Connell’s true love is the schools, which also provide his greatest opportunity. “Yes, it’s good luck for me that education funding is now a big issue. But it’s always been my emphasis,” he said, noting that in the early 2000s, he led the campaign for the neatly numbered Proposition 55, which lowered the threshold from a two-thirds vote to 55 percent for passage of school construction bonds.

O’Connell would fund his wish list and balance the budget, he says, by switching to a two- or three-year budget cycle, then encouraging economic growth in many ways to make his long-term financial plan work. And he would push for a statewide bond issue for ongoing school operations and activities.

It’s a different approach than any other candidate now suggests. But Newsom and others who take O’Connell lightly might want to study the 2006 election returns: In that year, O’Connell drew more votes than any candidate in the nation, his winning margin much larger than even Schwarzenegger’s.

“There’s an opening for him,” says longtime Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who has helped run campaigns for both O’Connell and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “The real question is can he raise the money he’ll need to be competitive.”

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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