Candidates for California state superintendent of schools clash over attack ads

October 22, 2018

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, left, and former charter school executive Marshall Tuck are facing off in the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In its final stretch, the race for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in California is taking on a sharper tone as Bay Area Assemblyman Tony Thurmond and former education executive Marshall Tuck each say new negative ads against them are twisting the truth.

The dispute over negative ads has escalated, with the Thurmond campaign seeking to have an independent committee take off the air an ad that falsely claims Thurmond was reprimanded by the Obama administration.

The campaign for schools chief has attracted at least $43 million worth of contributions, most of which have gone to independent expenditure committees supporting Tuck and Thurmond.

Tuck’s backers are far outpacing Thurmond’s in fundraising: Two committees supporting Tuck have taken in $24.1 million as of Monday, while a committee supporting Thurmond has received $11.5 million. Independent expenditure committees can take donations of unlimited size but are barred from coordinating with campaigns.

The Tuck campaign had raised $4.2 million in direct contributions, compared to $2.8 million for Thurmond, as of Sept. 22, the most recent filing deadline.

The contributions have come largely from advocates of charter school expansion who back Tuck and labor groups who support Thurmond.

With two weeks to go in the race, and as some Californians are submitting early ballots for the Nov. 6 election, Tuck and Thurmond backers are spending millions of dollars on television, radio and mail advertisements. Campaign finance records show the committees supporting Tuck spent $8.1 million on television advertising alone as of the most recent campaign finance filing deadline on Sept. 22, while a committee backing Thurmond spent $4.4 million. Those totals are likely to increase substantially before Election Day.

Some of that spending has gone toward negative ads, leading Tuck and Thurmond to spar over new television commercials that criticize their records.

One recent ad from an independent expenditure committee supporting Tuck blamed Thurmond for problems in West Contra Costa Unified, the East Bay school district where Thurmond was a school board member from 2008 to 2012.

Another ad, produced by the Thurmond campaign, sought to tie Tuck to the education agenda of President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Each ad plays on themes Tuck and Thurmond have used throughout the campaign to knock one another: Tuck’s supporters painting Thurmond as a politician who was ineffective in serving children when he was a school board member, and Thurmond backers attempting to connect Tuck with President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In each case, Tuck and Thurmond told EdSource the other side’s ad deceives voters.

The Thurmond campaign’s ad “has a couple of blatant lies and highly, highly manipulative information that he knows is inaccurate,” Tuck said.

“The EdVoice ad flat-out lies,” Thurmond said, referring to a Sacramento-based political advocacy group that funds the Tuck-backing independent expenditure committee that produced the ad blaming Thurmond for problems at West Contra Costa Unified.

Tuck and Thurmond are both Democrats and agree on many major education issues: Each says California should spend substantially more money on education, and supports raising commercial and industrial property taxes to provide that new funding. The state superintendent receives a $175,182 salary.

But in a race in which the future growth of charter schools has become a key issue, voters are seeing plenty of negative advertising, in addition to more upbeat campaign commercials introducing the candidates to the public.

Here’s a closer look at the ads that drew the ire of the Tuck and Thurmond campaigns:

Outside group blames Thurmond for district’s troubles

The anti-Thurmond ad was funded by an independent expenditure committee supporting Tuck established by EdVoice. EdVoice officials did not return multiple messages seeking comment on their ad.

“Before he was running for state superintendent, politician Tony Thurmond was responsible for a school district with widespread budget problems,” the ad states, referring to West Contra Costa Unified.

Text on the screen directly ties district problems to Thurmond. “Tony Thurmond: School Board Member”; “Tony Thurmond: Sued by the ACLU”; “Tony Thurmond: Reprimanded by the Obama Administration”; “Tony Thurmond: Failed Kids”; “Tony Thurmond: Wrong for State Superintendent.”

The voice over adds details about the district: “Ranked last in the state for failing to serve students of color. Sued for leaving at-risk students in rotting trailers with mushrooms growing in the floors. Reprimanded by the Obama Administration for failing to address widespread sexual harassment and assault in district schools. Tony Thurmond failed the students he was supposed to help. California deserves better.”

The ad does not mention that Thurmond was one of five West Contra Costa Unified board members.

The claim that Thurmond was reprimanded by the Obama administration is false. The letter from the Obama-era Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights criticizing West Contra Costa Unified’s handling of sexual harassment never mentions Thurmond or the district’s board. The letter was issued in 2013, after Thurmond left the board, though it does state the department’s investigation began during his term in 2010.

“I was never reprimanded by Obama, and I wasn’t even on the board when the letter was sent by the Department of Education,” Thurmond said. He added that the claim prompted his campaign to send a cease and desist order to the committee that produced the ad.

The ad’s statement that Thurmond was sued over school facilities is technically accurate, in that he was named as a defendant board member in an American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against West Contra Costa Unified. However, the lawsuit named every member of the school board, along with the district, its superintendent and its associate superintendent. The district’s daily management falls to its administration, not the elected board members.

The ad mirrors criticism of Thurmond’s time in West Contra Costa in an opinion column published in the San Francisco Chronicle last month from Bill Evers, a Tuck supporter and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Evers was also a member of Trump’s education transition team.

The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as Christine Pelosi, the chairwoman of the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus, have also denounced the ad. While the Tuck campaign is prohibited by law from coordinating with the independent expenditure committee that produced the ad, Thurmond’s campaign has called for Tuck to disavow it.

Tuck told EdSource he would not disavow the ad. It accurately described problems in West Contra Costa Unified during Thurmond’s term, Tuck said, and “the board should be held accountable for that.” But, he also stressed that the ad was outside of his control.

Andrew Blumenfeld, Tuck’s campaign manager, also defended the ad.

“Assembly member Thurmond uses his time on the school board as evidence of his ability to serve as state superintendent,” Blumenfeld said. “I think it’s well within bounds to question what was the quality of his leadership when he was on the school board.”

Ad aims to tie Tuck to DeVos

The ad that angered Tuck was issued by the Thurmond campaign itself, not by an independent expenditure committee.

“Tony Thurmond for state superintendent,” the ad begins. “Tony is an educator and public school parent. Marshall Tuck, a former Wall Street banker, is a paid backer of charter schools. Tony is supported by teachers and the California Democratic Party. Tuck is backed by Donald Trump’s education adviser and financed by the same billionaires behind Betsy DeVos. Tony will protect public schools and prepare students for the jobs of the future. Tony Thurmond for state superintendent — supported by teachers, not billionaires.”

The ad’s contention that Tuck “is a paid backer of charter schools” is false. Tuck was previously on the payroll of a charter school organization, when he was president of Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles charter school organization, from 2002 to 2006. But Tuck said he is not working now for any organization and is focusing full-time on the superintendent campaign.

Tuck also noted his time working for a Wall Street firm was short — he spent two years in the investment firm Salomon Brothers’ Los Angeles office after graduating from college in the mid-1990s.

According to Maddie Franklin, Thurmond’s campaign manager, the Trump “education adviser” referred to in the ad is Evers, a member of Trump’s education transition team. The ad never mentions Evers, however, and never shows him on the screen.

Instead, when the ad’s voice-over mentions “Donald Trump’s education adviser,” the screen shows Trump with DeVos and zooms in on the education secretary’s face.

The clear implication in the ad is that DeVos has herself endorsed Tuck. She has not.

“I have been against DeVos from day one,” Tuck said. But “any person who sees that (ad) believes what they’re saying is that Betsy DeVos endorses my campaign,” he said.

Thurmond said it was not deceptive to refer to Evers while showing DeVos on the screen.

“It is a fact that Mr. Tuck is supported by those who support Secretary DeVos and who support Donald Trump,” Thurmond said. His campaign cited Evers’ support for Tuck, as well as the three members of the Walton family who contributed a combined $2.4 million to an EdVoice political action committee that backs Tuck. The family members, who are heirs to the Walmart fortune, have also given money in the past to a political action committee co-founded by DeVos, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Daniel J. Willis, EdSource database specialist contributed to this report.

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