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Thursday, May 22, 2008 | In an embarrassing coda to a troubled political career, Luis Acle’s bid to reclaim his seat on the San Diego Unified school board fizzled Wednesday with his second failure to gather enough valid signatures to run, virtually guaranteeing challenger Richard Barrera the office.

For a Republican who once aspired to City Council and Congress, it is an unceremonious exit from the public sphere after four years marked by detachment, frequent absences and a run-in with the Ethics Commission. His re-election was undone by a banal requirement of any political candidate: Getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

“It’s one of the easiest things you’ll ever have to do, if you’re going to run for public office,” said Glen Sparrow, professor emeritus in San Diego State University’s school of public affairs. Worse, he said, Acle repeated his error twice. “It’s a pretty good indication that he shouldn’t be on the ballot.”

A similar gaffe derailed Acle’s campaign in March, when he failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. His efforts to drum up support were hobbled by a city Ethics Commission complaint that Acle stiffed his campaign staffers of nearly $14,000 during a failed bid for City Council. He was pessimistic about a write-in campaign, and said that he would likely turn away from public service.

Yet in April, Acle revived a write-in campaign, aided by a game-changing ruling from the city attorney that said a write-in candidate didn’t need to grab a minimum number of votes in the primary to advance to the general election. The opinion allowed the top two vote-getters in the June primary to proceed to the November election, no matter how many votes each candidate won.

With only two contenders in District D, Acle seemed bound for the November election, where his name would be listed on the ballot. And as the incumbent in the often overlooked school board race, Acle would have enjoyed an automatic advantage with voters over Richard Barrera, a Democratic labor organizer vying for his seat.

But Acle’s campaign faltered again Wednesday. He fell dramatically short of the signatures needed to run a valid write-in campaign. Required to provide 200 valid signatures by Tuesday, he submitted only 207 signatures to the county registrar, giving himself little leeway for unregistered signers. Only 47 of his signatures were valid.

That leaves Barrera running unopposed to represent District D, a swath of San Diego stretching south of Interstate 8 to Barrio Logan. With the primary still weeks away and the November election far later, Barrera is already behaving more like a school board member than a candidate, planning to spend some of his remaining campaign funds on an educational summit to share ideas among District D schools.

“There’s an opportunity here to get out of traditional campaign mode and to get people excited about what really matters: creating great schools for our kids,” Barrera said.

Acle could not be reached Wednesday. In a March interview, believing his campaign to be finished, Acle cited unifying the school board and hiring two “outstanding” superintendents as his proudest accomplishments during his four year term.

Before he arrived, “we had a totally dysfunctional and polarized district,” Acle said. “It was split between people who supported the previous superintendent and were in favor of his policies, and tremendous distance and alienation of the professional staff, especially the teachers.”

But under his leadership, Acle said, “we enjoyed a significant amount of harmony.”

With the deflation of Acle’s campaign and Barrera’s expected victory, local Republicans have momentarily lost a potential pathway to higher office through the school board, said Scott Barnett, a former Republican candidate for school board and president of TaxpayersAdvocate.org. Barnett believes the school board’s influence is underestimated, and its political power considerable. U.S. Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis began their political careers on the San Diego Unified board.

“It’s probably best for Luis to just get on with his life, and I wish him luck with all his travails,” Barnett said.

“But if it was really important to him, you’d think he would have gotten the bloody signatures to get on the ballot,” he added.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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