State schools chief Terry Bergeson faces stiff challenge

OLYMPIA — A former legislator who has the backing of the Washington teachers union is facing off against a 12-year incumbent in what many experts believe is the most exciting schools chief race in more than a decade.

Randy Dorn and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson are competing against each other just months after controversial new graduation requirements helped decide which high school seniors would receive diplomas.

While Bergeson focuses on how the new standards are better preparing kids for the future, Dorn zeroes in on the debate surrounding the effectiveness and fairness of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests.

“It is truly a sleeper race of huge proportion,” said Cathy Allen, president and CEO of The Connections Group consulting firm in Seattle. “It’s not just a mandate on Terry Bergeson. This is a mandate on the WASL, and she is the poster child for it.”

Four other lesser-known candidates are running for the position, which pays $121,618 a year.

After teaching and serving as a principal, Dorn spent seven years in the state House of Representatives. Now 55, he’s the executive director of the Public School Employees of Washington, a union for classified school workers.

Bergeson, 65, began teaching when she was 20. She taught in Massachusetts and Alaska before becoming a school counselor in Tacoma, then an administrator and, after one failed attempt, the state superintendent of public instruction.

“I had a major fight four years ago and came very close with (challenger) Judith Billings,” Bergeson said. “I think it’s more intense this time than it was last election. It’s kind of the same set of issues, just further down the road. It’s a good, strong fight.”

Dorn entered the race late but picked up an endorsement from the powerful Washington Education Association after the union’s top choice dropped out of the race. Bergeson ran the teachers union in the late ’80s, and said WEA’s endorsement of Dorn means she’ll have to work three times harder. Dorn also said he has the support of nearly 50 legislators.

He says his campaign is getting stronger every day.

“All the political types kind of said, ‘Oh, a third-time incumbent. It’s tough to raise money’ — all those things have been said,” Dorn said. “It’s not going to matter. There’s such a depth of discontent and frustration of the leadership at OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction). This has spilled over to educators to parents to young people. We’re going to have a tremendous showing. I just believe that.”

As of Friday, Bergeson had raised $143,338 for her campaign and spent $86,270, according to the Public Disclosure Commission. Dorn had raised $68,352 and spent $38,068, but his campaign manager said that doesn’t include a $21,000 deposit made earlier this week.

The four other candidates in the race haven’t raised any money, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

Those candidates are:

John Blair, a Vashon man who owns a heating and air conditioning business. He also ran for schools chief in 2004. The former teacher says he wants to restructure the school system to give parents more influence. He doesn’t expect to win the race but hopes his candidacy helps leaders see the need for change.

David Blomstrom, a Seattle man who has worked in schools and runs several Web sites, including Jail4Bush.org, seattle-mafia.org and viva-chavez.com. According to his campaign Web site, he is seeking an endorsement from controversial Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He has made a point not to attend candidate forums.

Enid Duncan, an Edgewood city councilwoman who owns a garden supply business with her husband. The Costa Rica native earned a master’s degree in education from Goddard College in Vermont. She decided to run for office after struggling to find in-state help for her dyslexic son. She believes schools should offer more options for students with learning disabilities.

Don Hansler, a former teacher and administrator from the Bellevue School District. He wants to bring a scientific problem-solving approach to OSPI. He advocates for a two-tier diploma system and for bonuses for teachers whom parents like.

Most election followers don’t expect any of the four to make it past the primary. Allen believes votes for them will hurt Dorn by chipping away at his “anti-Bergeson” base.

“When you diffuse the anti-vote, it makes the incumbent look stronger,” she said. “The likelihood of her not being in the general is slim to none because there’s so many running against her.”

Unless any one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 19 primary, the top two will advance to the Nov. 4 general election.

Bergeson and Dorn both plan to reach voters through TV ads and mailings. Bergeson said she spends hours calling supporters, asking for donations. Dorn said he spends at least 10 hours a day campaigning.

“An incumbent with a record of accomplishments is hard to kick out,” public policy consultant Richard Davis said. “It could be this is the year. If I was the incumbent, I wouldn’t be taking it for granted, but it’s not enough for the challenger to say that he’s an alternative. He has to make a real strong case for ‘Why change?’ “

Herald Writer Eric Stevick contributed to this story.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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