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Steller: Huppenthal exposes private-school roots, and more

Steller: Huppenthal exposes private-school roots, and more

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During his years as superintendent of public instruction, John Huppenthal has occasionally been convincing while playing the role of a supporter of public education.Back in September he showed up at the Sunnyside School District to urge rancorous board members to get along. His mention of growing up in the area confused me enough to think that he had actually attended Sunnyside public schools as a kid.

Oh, no.

Huppenthal grew up in the district but attended St. John the Evangelist and Salpointe Catholic schools. Now that he lives in the Phoenix area and has his own kids, one of them attended Seton Catholic in Chandler, while another attended a charter school, the Arizona Republic reported in 2011.

So perhaps it should not be surprising that this week it became clear that his true loyalties seem to lie outside the public-school system.

He recorded a robocall suggesting that parents take advantage of a voucher system that could give kids $6,000 a year in tax money to attend private schools: “That’s right, you may be able to send your child to private school for free!” he enthused in the call, which went out to thousands of parents in poor Tucson and Phoenix neighborhoods.

Later he told KPNX TV reporter Brahm Resnik: “I’m the superintendent of public instruction, not the superintendent of public schools.”

Now, I personally support some of Arizona’s education reforms and my wife and I have voted with our feet, sending our kids to a charter school.

But as State. Rep. Bruce Wheeler (D-Tucson) pointed out, this voucher program and an expansion being considered — and supported by Huppenthal — takes big money from public schools and gives it to private schools, with little oversight.

“There are ideologues in this state, unfortunately in high positions, who definitely are out to dismantle public education,” Wheeler said.

On Wednesday, Huppenthal apparently realized he’d gone too far — at least too far for an election year — and tried to walk back his comments in a written statement.

“My remarks regarding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and my reason for agreeing to inform families of this opportunity was to apprise parents of a unique program, not advocate for private school instruction over that of a public school education,” he wrote, unconvincingly. “I have great regret if any member of the public school system felt anything less than my full appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.”

His regret may also have something to do with the fact that his Democratic opponent in this year’s election, David Garcia, took the controversy as an opportunity to inject himself into the public consciousness.

“This is outrageous. The head of public schools should be working to improve our public schools, not abandon them,” Garcia said in a written statement, adding later: “If John Huppenthal really cared about public school teachers or the students they serve, he would be advocating on their behalf at the Legislature.”

The M word riles Dems

My casual reference last week to Rep. Ethan Orr as a “moderate Republican” stirred outrage among some Democrats, especially progressives, who are eager to unseat him this year.

To Pamela Powers Hannley and others active on the left, Orr’s signing of a Center for Arizona Policy pledge that fetuses should be considered “persons” is evidence that he is on the far right. Of course, his only relevant vote in his year-plus in the Legislature actually went against the position of the organization, which was hoping for additional regulations to ensure tax money doesn’t pay for abortions.

The anti-Orr reaction was so strong that former Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers threatened, in a long conversation on my Facebook page, to find a challenger to Democratic Sen. Steve Farley, a friend of Orr’s who refused to endorse the new Dem candidate, Randy Friese.

“Steve is actually being a hindrance from us picking up another seat for a pro-choice Dem and I suspect we’ll have a pro-choice woman to primary Steve so we can have a three person pro-choice team in LD 9,” Rogers wrote.

And in one of those twists that make politics so fascinating, local conservative Republican activist Christine Bauserman, herself a biting critic of Orr, complimented Rogers on his principals.

“Jeff supports integrity and demands party loyalty. You have to respect for him for that,” she wrote.

As for Farley, it’ll probably end up being water under the bridge, current Democratic Chairman Don Jorgensen assured me. Though Farley’s working with Orr on pedestrian- and bicycle-safety bills now, the likelihood is he’ll line up with the Dems, work for Friese and not face any primary challenger.

How Clinco got his seat

It was surprising last week that Pima County’s two Republican supervisors were able to help pick a new Democratic legislator, Demion Clinco.

How did GOP supervisors Ray Carroll and Ally Miller end up joining with Democrat Ramon Valadez to pick the occupant of an open legislative seat? Well, there’s a surface-level way of explaining this, and a murkier way.

Let’s start with the basics. Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat, resigned her Legislative District 2 seat in January, and the supervisors picked sitting Rep. Andrea Dalessandro to replace her.

Local Democrats then convened a meeting to choose three candidates for the board of supervisors to pick from.

The superficial way to explain Clinco’s selection is to say that the three Dems on the board split . Supervisors Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias both argued that a qualified woman, such as candidate Annabelle Nuñez, should be picked to replace a female legislator.

Valadez said he was simply following the votes of the precinct committeemen, who twice picked Clinco as their top candidate.

Dig a little deeper though, and you’ll see that Nuñez was being sponsored in her candidacy by Lopez, whose resignation set all this in motion.

And Valadez and Lopez have a rocky relationship. Therefore, he wasn’t about to go for Lopez’s candidate when there was a perfectly reasonable alternative.

I asked Valadez Thursday if that explains his vote, and he acknowledged some friction in his relationship with Lopez. However, he added:

“Is that why I picked Demion over her? Not really.”

The odd candidate out among the three finalists was Miguel Cuevas. He remains a persona non grata among many Democrats as a result of his time on the Tucson Unified School District board, when he voted to end the district’s Mexican American Studies program.

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