O.C. Teacher Has a Final: State Schools Chief Runoff


Hours after she officially earned the chance to compete for California's top education job, Gloria Matta Tuchman was back in her first-grade classroom Wednesday morning, doing what she has done for 33 years.

There was talk of dinosaurs--how do they have babies?--and of prehistoric eggs. There was no talk about bilingual anything. In fact, her students were blissfully unaware of the campaign, or that Matta Tuchman had just had breakfast with the governor and 500 other Republicans.

"I keep my politics out of the classroom," said a beaming Matta Tuchman, sitting beneath maps of the world in the library of Taft Elementary School in Santa Ana, contemplating what comes next in her race for state superintendent of public instruction. "That's my other life."

With three hours' sleep, the teacher could celebrate a double victory: as a lesser-known candidate, she earned enough votes in the primary election to force a runoff against the incumbent schools czar, Delaine Eastin. And as co-author of Proposition 227, Matta Tuchman was the Latina poster teacher for ending bilingual education in public schools, and replacing it with a one-year English immersion program.

Statewide, incumbent Democrat Eastin earned 42.9% of the vote, with Matta Tuchman, one of four Republicans, claiming 25.6% of the vote. In Orange County, which supported the anti-bilingual education initiative in greater numbers than California at large, Eastin barely beat Matta Tuchman, 33.4% to 32.6%. Had Eastin earned a majority statewide, there would be no November runoff.

"Gloria had a great line this morning" at the breakfast, said her campaign manager Jon Fleischman. "She said 'Delaine Eastin couldn't muster 50% in the election yesterday. In my classroom, earning under 50% is a failing grade.' "

Teased later about her analogy, and that such logic would mean Proposition 227--which passed with 61% of the vote--also would receive a lousy mark in her class, Matta Tuchman smiled and explained, in so many words, that political math is different than the arithmetic she teaches in the classroom.

Matta Tuchman was understandably tired from dual campaigns as she finished her school day Wednesday, though she did not look it, sharply dressed in a pearl-colored suit. She had gone to bed at 2:30 a.m., staying at the Santa Ana hotel where the Republicans were headquartered. She had awakened at 5:30 a.m. for the big unity meal with party leaders.

"I didn't ask about breakfast, or 'What's next?' I asked my campaign manager, 'Am I still a winner?' " Matta Tuchman said with a grin. "'Did the proposition [227] still win?' Because you go to bed not knowing if it could change."

Now, of course, comes the heavy lifting: five months of campaigning before the November general election and--perhaps more grueling--the fund-raising.

Where will the support and money come from? Will Matta Tuchman ride the coattails of Proposition 227's victory? And what issues will she beat the drum for besides the one that she has championed--students learning English through immersion.

Matta Tuchman said she will meet today and Friday with her campaign team to start drawing up plans, but that she has faith in her ability to win in November.

Matta Tuchman said her top priorities as state superintendent of public instruction would be to concentrate on the back-to-basics approach that she believes could be accomplished by implementing existing state board of education policies. She also wants to ensure that there are "worthwhile" textbooks for every student, and that Proposition 227 is carried out, if it clears challenges raised in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

"The money--I'm not going to worry about it. The money will come. . . . I know it takes a lot of money on a campaign, but we did a lot with what we had," she said.

The deep pockets of Silicon Valley multimillionaire Ron K. Unz, Proposition 227's co-author, helped her in the primary, and the national spotlight cast upon the initiative probably "didn't hurt," she said.

Although the office is bipartisan, there was no escaping politics in the primary: Eastin is a former Democratic Assembly member. She attended her own party's post-election breakfast Wednesday. Matta Tuchman has received several education commission appointments from former President Reagan and Gov. Pete Wilson.

Ron Smith, a GOP consultant, said he believes Matta Tuchman benefited from her association with Proposition 227 and that it will help her campaign in the fall. Smith pointed out that Paul Gann, who co-sponsored Proposition 13 that resulted from a voter revolt on property taxes in 1978, was soundly beaten when he ran for Senate four years later. But Matta Tuchman's "is a special case," he said. "I think there is a feeling that schools are failing our students and she may be just the person to express the frustration--someone who is 33 years as a teacher."

Political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe agreed.

"I think Gloria Matta Tuchman has come into the runoff on the coattails of Prop. 227," said Jeffe, senior associate in the school of politics and economics at Claremont Graduate University. "It is a worrisome situation for Delaine Eastin that she did not avoid a runoff. But she hasn't lost the race; she just didn't win it in the primary."

"I would be surprised if Ron Unz did not commit to her campaign," Jeffe said. "Why do you spend the time, energy and money on a proposition and then walk away from the possibility that you will have someone implementing the proposition who believes in it, your co-author?"

As to finishing second, Matta Tuchman and her campaign believe that if former state schools superintendent Bill Honig could force a runoff with about the same primary results as Matta Tuchman, and go on to win, so can Matta Tuchman. And the conventional wisdom among political observers is that a candidate forced into a runoff will lose in the general election. But there are also exceptions, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti being one.

"He used it as a wake-up call," Jeffe said. "I don't know if that could happen in this, but I will say that Gloria Matta Tuchman made it into the runoff and perhaps one of the significant reasons Delaine Eastin was forced into a runoff is the link of Prop. 227. . . . and voter dissatisfaction with education."

Steve Gray-Barkan, a Democratic consultant, agreed on the value of Matta Tuchman's links with Proposition 227 in the primary but analyzed the race slightly differently. He said that passage of Proposition 227 expresses a dissatisfaction with bilingual education, but that would not easily last for Matta Tuchman six months from now when the proposition is not in the news.

"She won't have 227 to carry her. Eastin is in real good shape for the runoff," Gray-Barkan said, pointing out that Eastin is at nearly 50% now, and could still split the remaining vote with Matta Tuchman and win.

Matta Tuchman said she has grown a thick skin when it comes to those critics who have compared her to Ward Connor, the African American regent of the University of California who opposes affirmative action.

"I've been called vendida, sellout. It doesn't bother me," said Matta Tuchman, whose bilingual parents impressed upon her the importance of learning English. "If that's all they have to say about me, that I'm racist, that's very shallow. You never get used to the hurt and the names, but like my daddy told me a few weeks ago, 'No les hagas caso, mi hija'--'Don't pay any attention to them.' "

Times staff writer Peter M. Warren and Liz Seymour contributed to this story.

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