A week after becoming one of only two Republicans left in the mayoral primary, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis used an education-based debate to strengthen her credentials as the school-reform candidate.
“As mayor I will fix the city’s schools and I will fix them in my first term,” she said during her closing remarks at the debate.
The pronouncement is her latest in a series of moves to establish herself as the choice for voters primarily concerned with the situation facing the San Diego Unified School District. It also comes as she suddenly finds herself in a less crowded Republican field.
Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher announced he was leaving the Republican Party last week, and watched as national attention poured in from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, MSNBC and CNN. Prior to the announcement he was polling even with Dumanis in third place at 10 percent.
Dumanis now finds herself in a Republican field that includes only her and the current frontrunner, City Councilman Carl DeMaio. Dumanis took the debate, hosted by the Center for Education Policy Law and U-T San Diego, as an opportunity to strengthen her credentials on a topic that she’s made central to her campaign.
“Other than (pension reform), they’re all trying to carve out several other issues to try to get that undecided demographic,” he said. “That’s exactly what’s going on.”
More than a third of city voters were undecided in a recent poll conducted by the two organizations that hosted the debate. DeMaio pulled 24 percent and Congressman Bob Filner, the lone Democrat, took 20 percent.
A Survey USA poll conducted and released after Fletcher’s decision asked voters following the race whether it made them more or less likely to vote for him. While he lost 4 percent of his support, he gained an additional 12 percent, according to the poll.
“If you believe that poll, I don’t see how it helps Dumanis, that the Republican field became narrower,” Dadian said. “If you believe an eight percent bump, that makes a big difference in a field where the winner is only going to need between 20 and 25 percent. It’s clearly getting down to crunch time, and all the candidates need to target those uncommitted and undecided voters.”
He stressed that polls at this point are largely inconsequential, since none of the candidates have really started spending the money they’ve raised to date.
To that end, Fletcher followed up his week of heavy publicity to become the first candidate to buy television advertising time.
The 30-second spot continues his attack on partisan politics and features the new slogan, “Tested. Trusted. Independent.”
Dumanis’ education plan, however, has met resistance because the mayor doesn’t presently have much power over the school system. The San Diego Unified School District is governed by a board of five elected officials.
In early January she released a plan to add four mayoral appointees to the board. Last month she also called for a regional education summit to assist her reform efforts.
The mayor’s impotence in the face of the district’s budget woes — layoff notices have been sent to 1,600 teachers — was a common theme in the candidates’ responses during the debate.
Fletcher is the only candidate besides Dumanis to release an education plan. His plan creates a donation-funded technology foundation to give every K-12 city student an Internet-ready computing device by 2016, and emphasizes adult re-education programs for unemployed workers whose jobs have disappeared.
During the debate, DeMaio said the mayor could “lead by example” to improve schools. By getting its fiscal house in order, City Hall could put pressure on S.D. Unified to do the same.
Otherwise, he recommended ending tenure-based pay and switching to a performance-based system to improve the district, clashing with Filner on the issue, who said performance metrics inevitably mean relying on flawed tests to determine teacher quality.
Filner continued a running tactic he’s deployed in debates, offering Fletcher the backhanded compliment of a job in his administration following a Fletcher response he claimed to have liked.
But after Filner admitted to not knowing what California’s “parent trigger” law was, Fletcher struck back.
“When I’m mayor, Bob, I’m going to let you be my student,” he said, explaining that the law gave parents the power to force change at poorly performing schools.
DeMaio also appealed to his personal biography to demonstrate why education is important to him. After being orphaned, DeMaio was given an opportunity to attend Georgetown Prep, an elite Jesuit boarding school in Washington, D.C. He said he’d been given an opportunity that needed to be repaid.