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The acronyms DINO and RINO bring to mind extinct or endangered creatures and thus are appropriate designations – Democrat In Name Only and Republican In Name Only.

The terms, often used pejoratively, apply to politicians who do not strictly adhere to party positions – they may think independently and refuse to embrace the party line in every instance. They are endangered because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to win elections without the full support of a particular political party, especially if candidates (gasp) think for themselves on occasion. Veering off the party’s path can be political suicide.

Most voters want candidates who represent centrist positions and embody a combination of ideologies from a variety of political points of view. Extremism on either end appeals to a narrow few. But rarely are centrist candidates supported by their political parties.

Nonpartisan races, where party affiliations are not supposed to matter, should now be called NINOs, for Nonpartisan In Name Only, as more and more nonpartisan races are ruled by party politics.

School board races are nonpartisan and were established that way for a reason: Everyone was supposed to come together for the greater good of the children and the benefit of public education.

Sounds a bit naïve now, doesn’t it? My suggestion to local political leaders recently that perhaps nonpartisan races should be, well, nonpartisan, was met with incredulity and bemusement, as if I were delusional.

“These are elections, and elections are what we do,” said Ron Nehring, chair of the San Diego County Republican Party. “There is no such thing as a nonpartisan election. Democrats have known this for a long time, but Republicans have learned this only recently.”

Jess Durfee, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said that “in an ideal world” parties would not be endorsing candidates for nonpartisan elections. “But it does become partisan more often than not, because people like Ron Nehring force them to become that,” he said.

“If education is a nonpartisan issue, why do all politicians talk about it?” said Nehring, who also serves on the Board of Education for the Grossmont Union High School District. “We have an interest in advancing Republican principles, because those principles will maximize the quality of education for all students.”

Nehring was appointed in 2004 as a trustee for the GUHSD, which has taken a sharp turn to the right after the appointments and elections of a number of conservative Republicans.

“The Grossmont school district is very partisan,” Durfee noted. “Republicans got heavily involved there and spent a lot of money. We have not done that.”

“We made a determination that every office in San Diego County deserves the benefit of Republican leadership,” Nehring said. “We look for someone who supports broad Republican principles. We respect a diversity of thought with a commonality of ideals. That’s why we are San Diego County’s majority party.”

Durfee said that Republican candidates are “going into offices to promote party politics” rather than community interests. “We give our candidates more freedom to support their community,” he said. “We endorse the best person for the race, not necessarily for higher office.”

Durfee – a teacher for 15 years in Oregon and Washington, president of his education association and involved in political action at local, state and national levels – takes a particular interest in school board elections. He said it’s important to endorse candidates who support Democratic party values, but he stressed that the issues are general and not education specific.

Nehring said they look for school board candidates who support generic principles like accountability, transparency, performance and results.

It’s hard to argue with ideals like that. What divides the parties is disagreement over the best way to attain those lofty goals.

“The role of the school board is to provide the best quality education for schools,” Nehring said. “There’s an inherent difference in how Republicans and Democrats see this. Republicans are more sensitive to what the children need, and Democrats want to placate the unions.”

For Republicans, the labor union issue is front and center. “Unions argue for more money and fewer days of work,” said Nehring, who heard a teachers union official once say, “I’ll start representing students when students start to pay union dues.”

A former teacher, Durfee obviously supports the role of teachers unions in education and believes teachers’ and students’ interests are inextricably linked.

Local DINOs and RINOs

On June 6, Susan Hartley and Katherine Nakamura beat their opponents in their races for San Diego County school board and San Diego Unified School District school board, respectively. Both are incumbents, both share similar values and both ran without their party’s endorsements.

Hartley, a Republican, ran against Gary Felien who serves on the county’s Republican Central Committee and was endorsed by the Republican Party. Hartley beat Felien with 70 percent of the vote. There is no further election for the next four years for this seat.

Nakamura, a Democrat, ran against three candidates and received the most votes, with 40 percent of the total. The Democratic Party gave its endorsement to one of her opponents, Jim Wilson, who came in third. Nakamura now moves on to November and will run district-wide against Michael McSweeney, who garnered 33 percent of the vote. McSweeney is the first vice-chair of the San Diego County Republican Party.

Think that nonpartisan election will remain nonpartisan? “That one’s not too politicized, is it?” asked Durfee rhetorically.

Hartley and Nakamura suffered from being labeled a RINO and a DINO – Hartley for not supporting Republican Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initiatives on last November’s ballot, and Nakamura for her support for charter schools and her association with former SDUSD superintendent Alan Bersin. Although a Democrat, Bersin was hated by the teachers union for his management style and his anti-union policies regarding merit and incentive pay, tenure and seniority rights.

Interestingly, both Nehring and Durfee said neither Hartley nor Nakamura sought their endorsements, implying both might have received it had they asked – although Nehring said Hartley “antagonized many Republicans with her opposition to the governor” and Durfee questioned Nakamura’s links to Bersin.

Despite this, Durfee expects Nakamura to be endorsed by the party for the November election and said, “I respect her leadership as an educator.”

Both Hartley and Nakamura embody middle-of-the-road beliefs that reflect commonly held viewpoints of many independent voters, but adopting positions that ran counter to the party line made both women’s campaigns challenging.

The Myth of Nonpartisan Elections

When centrist candidates are targeted by their own parties, it exposes the “myth of nonpartisan elections,” said Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College. School board candidates are compelled to support party values to win approval from their parties, he said.

“These seats are being used to strike a blow against the other ideology,” said Luna, singling out school board races in particular because these low-level positions are often springboards to higher office. For the political parties, “It’s important to have an ideologically pure individual on the school board.”

Luna traces the problem back to the early 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against prayer in school. Until then, both parties had similar core values, but “these seats have become more important since then,” he said. Board members now spend much of their time fighting ideological problems, which distracts attention from the real issues, he said – “and we are forgetting that Johnny can’t read.”

Adding fuel to the fire in California was the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, Luna said, which removed local control over education dollars and transferred the money to the state. This reduced property owners’ direct connection with their local schools, made education funding more nebulous and politicized education issues.

In addition, “Republicans have become increasingly anti-union in the last 30 to 40 years,” Luna said. Teachers unions are one of the strongest labor organizations remaining in American society.

Luna said school boards are often used to promote narrow rather than global interests. These special interests can include removing evolution from textbooks, promoting gay rights or even building a swimming pool at the local high school.

Thad Kousser, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, takes a more positive view of the participation of political parties in school board elections. “It gives voters a way to choose,” he said. “It’s hard to know a lot about candidates without party involvement.”

When political parties endorse a candidate, or refuse to, “it makes brand names more meaningful,” Kousser said. “You know what you are buying.”

This can work to the benefit of so-called RINOs and DINOs who may find the label appeals to many voters, Kousser said. If voters like Democratic values but believe the teachers union has too much power, they might be attracted to a DINO candidate. Or if Republicans support the teaching of evolution and oppose creationism and intelligent design in schools, they may be wary of a Republican-endorsed school board candidate and prefer a RINO.

Successful politicians “work their way up in politics when they’ve done well, and that gives people incentive to toe the party line,” Kousser said. “It does make it

harder for people to be mavericks, but many have survived and thrived being centrists.”

Luna said turning nonpartisan school board elections into partisan political races “has really screwed things up” for K-12 education.

Furthermore, it’s wasteful, Luna said, to have so many school boards operating independently when they all use the same textbooks, the same state standards and the same assessment measurements. No one pays attention to best practices of other school boards, he said, pointing to the 42 school districts within San Diego County. “Why should Grossmont be so different from Poway which is so different than Encinitas?”

Luna also said the system is top-heavy with over-educated leaders who “may know education theory but can’t teach.”

He suggested doing away with the whole mess and empowering a statewide organization to oversee the enterprise, with minimal local oversight. “I’d abolish the entire school board system,” Luna said heretically. “School boards are a 19th-century anachronism.”

Can we return nonpartisanship to those races labeled nonpartisan, so that kids are no longer used as stepping stones to further the aspirations of individuals with personal agendas and political parties with extremist doctrines?

“We’re never going to get that horse back in the barn,” Luna said. “We’ve turned all American politics into a baseball game.”

It’s hard to know which party is winning this game. But it’s quite clear who the losers are – the children.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org. Or write a letter to the editor.

Keywords: Ron Nehring, Jess Durfee, Susan Hartley, Katherine Nakamura, Carl Luna, Thad Kousser, education, Marsha Sutton

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