Torlakson holds lead in state superintendent race

Torlakson holds lead in state superintendent race
Incumbent Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

While state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson held a lead over Marshall Tuck in election returns Tuesday night, the incumbent warned of reveling too soon and the challenger said results could change.

Shortly before midnight, Torlakson spoke to supporters about what had been "the toughest election in my career." He stopped short of claiming victory but added: "They were strong but we were stronger."

For a candidate who was leading, the gathering was especially subdued, about 45 people--including many gray-haired union veteranos, who expressed cautious relief about seemingly turning back a challenge to their political influence. Once more, it seemed, they had fended off the type of attack that has crippled unions in Wisconsin and other states.

It cost plenty.

Both sides had more than $10 million to spend on a down-ballot race that rarely attracts much attention.

This contest was different because it became a proxy war over two visions of how to improve public schools.

Most of the money for the campaign of Torlakson, 65, came from teacher unions and other labor allies. Generally speaking, they favor providing more resources to schools, while also making sure this aid is used more effectively. They see data from standardized tests as a tool to guide instruction rather than to evaluate teachers.

Polls showed the candidates neck and neck throughout the closing days of a campaign.

Torlakson's gathering was co-hosted by the California Teachers Assn. on the 7th floor of the Citizen Hotel, sporting a spectacular view of the Capitol, two blocks away. The fare included soft jazz, sweet potato croquettes, artisan cheeses and shrimp.

The only cheering--fairly mild at that--occurred at about 10:30 p.m., when a local camera crew needed some footage. Torlakson was not in the room at the time so there was no one in particular to cheer for.

The gathering spot featured an enormous, draped white canopy suspended from the ceiling, more fitting for a wedding perhaps, although Torlakson's connection with the union could hardly be closer than a marriage of common minds.

Torlakson spent almost the entire evening in a private room on the same floor.

During an early evening appearance, he talked about his attempts to build consensus and coalitions.

"I know how to build teams, he said, referring to his past as a school running coach. "I am about bringing people together."

Late into the evening, the Tuck camp remained hopeful that the results could switch course as votes from various parts of California were tallied.

"Change is hard," Tuck said. "Our schools have been broken for a really long time and have had a similar power structure for a really long time. It's hard to change that."

Tuck, 41, watched the election coverage from Mar Vista, where some 200 guests crowded into his one-story home and not-so-large backyard, snacking on tacos. There, a large projection screen displayed updates and also made a fine backdrop for the shadow puppetry of two resourceful children.

Keeping Tuck company were guests who represented symbolic touchstones of his campaign and career to date. Some friends dated from his time as head of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter organization. Charters are independently managed campuses that are free from some regulations that govern traditional public schools.

An early arrival was former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had lured Tuck from Green Dot to manage a group of low-performing public schools. 

Tuck eagerly introduced Villaraigosa to his parents. Villaraigosa, in turn, insisted on optimism.

"You're going to beat this guy," he told Tuck. "You're going to beat him."

The charter community rallied behind Tuck, and wealthy charter funders helped make Tuck competitive with Torlakson, who was backed by the unions, other labor groups and the Democratic Party.

Also present was Beatriz Vergara and her family. The teenager is a plaintiff in litigation that struck down traditional teacher job protections on grounds that they harm students by perpetuating a lower-quality teaching force.

The ruling is on hold pending appeals filed by Torlakson, Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Board of Education and the state's two largest teacher unions.

Tuck had made support of the Vergara litigation a major part of his candidacy, which attracted wealthy, like-minded donors from across the country

Torlakson, meanwhile, tried to make his campaign symbolic of resistance to corporate-inspired education reforms and the donors who support them.

The incumbent helped teachers resist many federal mandates for high-stakes testing and teacher pay tied to those scores, said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn. Vogel was attending a union-heavy gathering in Sacramento with Torlakson.

Tuck, on the other hand, "would be an irritant."

Twitter: @paigestjohn @stephenceasar