Capitol Alert

Outside spending explodes in California schools chief race

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has a slight monetary lead over his challenger Marshall Tuck heading into the final weeks of the race.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has a slight monetary lead over his challenger Marshall Tuck heading into the final weeks of the race. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Incumbent Tom Torlakson had slightly more cash on hand than challenger Marshall Tuck heading into the final weeks of the heated race for state superintendent of public instruction, according to their latest campaign finance reports. But the close contest could come down to outside spending, which has topped $10 million since the beginning of October, more than for any other elected office in California this fall.

In a filing this week covering the period of Oct. 1-18, Torlakson reported $212,315 in contributions and $658,552 in expenditures, and had $162,371 for the last three weeks of the campaign. Tuck reported $301,418 in contributions and $873,865 in expenditures, leaving with him with $125,778.

The real money in the race, however, is coming from independent committees. Groups supporting Tuck and Torlakson have now spent just over $10 million, mostly on radio and television ads, and all but a few thousand of that in the last three weeks.

A committee backing Tuck, a former schools executive from Los Angeles who promised to overhaul California’s public education system, makes up more than $7.5 million of that total. It has been funded primarily by major figures from California’s business and technology sectors, including Los Angeles businessmen Bill Bloomfield and Eli Broad, Silicon Valley philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and The Gap founder Doris Fisher.

More than a million dollars in contributions is from outside the state, including $450,000 from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton and $250,000 from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

At a voter information event on Monday, Tuck said the huge outside spending represents “a broken part of the system” in elections.

“Trust me, it’s quite frustrating as somebody who likes to be in control of his own destiny,” he said. “You hope that the messaging is where it needs to be.”

But Tuck wasn’t surprised that “people who are really committed to improving schools, outside of this state,” had engaged in the race.

“Our state is so important to public education nationally. And if you look at it for the last couple of decades, we’ve just been behind nationally,” he said. “I think people see this as an opportunity for California to move forward.”

The rest of the independent expenditures in the race are mostly from supporters of Torlakson’s, including $323,597 by the California Democratic Party, $276,205 by the American Federation of Teachers and more than $1.5 million by a committee funded primarily by the California Teachers Association.

Teachers unions have made significant efforts to help re-elect Torlakson, who asked the state to appeal a June court ruling declaring California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws unconstitutional. Earlier this month, the CTA also spent almost $2 million on “issue ads” touting Torlakson’s work in his first term.

Torlakson spokesman Paul Hefner said they were “extremely grateful for the help,” but called the level of outside spending in the race “unprecendented” and “breathtaking.” He noted that Bloomfield, who has poured more than $2 million into the general election alone, had spent more than either Torlakson or his opponent did in the entire 2010 cycle.

“The purpose is clearly to diminish the voice of the actual candidate,” Hefner said. “It means that the candidates themselves are drowned out of their own campaign.”

He argued that union contributions to the race, drawn from the dues of hundreds of thousands of teachers, could not be compared to a few wealthy individuals using their personal fortunes to influence the outcome.

“I don’t think they’re the same thing,” Hefner said.

Call The Bee’s Alexei Koseff, (916) 321-5236. Follow him on Twitter @akoseff.

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