By Cecilia Chan
GSN Managing Editor
It’s the “Year of the Teacher” this midterm election year as hundreds of current and former educators run for state offices around the country.
It’s no different in Legislative District 12, which encompasses most of Gilbert and Queen Creek. The three Democrats running for Senate and the two House seats in the Nov. 6 election all have teaching backgrounds in the public-school system.
“We are seeing a large number of teachers more than in the past running for office,” said Noah Karvelis, the co-founder of the grassroots Arizona Educators United, which fueled the Red for Ed movement in the state. “Yeah, it’s pretty common right now, so LD 12 is not unique in that sense. But to have all three is.”
According to the National Education Association, there are 554 current and retired educators across the country running for a state house or state senate seat. The candidates include 512 Democrats and 42 Republicans with slightly more than 56 percent women, according to the nationwide teachers’ union.
The NEA, taking heed of the Red for Ed wave, helped educators who wanted to run by putting them through a training program that included details about setting up a campaign, fundraising and communicating with voters.
Despite talk of a “blue wave” propelling Democrats to victories across the country, Phoenix-based pollster Mike Noble said that all indications show voter turnout for this election will largely mirror historical norms statewide.
“People are drinking the national Kool Aid, but here in Arizona, we are not seeing a blue wave,” Noble said.
Noble also pointed out that teachers running for statewide office have lost momentum as immigration has leap frogged education as the number one issue with voters and the Red for Ed movement loses steam.
Other prominent educators running for higher office in Arizona include Democrat David Garcia, an Arizona State University professor running for governor, and Kathy Hoffman, a school speech-language pathologist running for state superintendent of public education.
In the LD 12 race, Democrat Elizabeth Brown is a former teacher and comes from a family of public school educators, Joe Bisaccia is a teacher at Cooley Middle School in the Higley Unified School District and Lynsey Robinson is a teacher-turned-attorney.
Brown faces incumbent Republican Eddie Farnsworth, a charter-school founder, in the state Senate race.
Bisaccia and Robinson are vying for the two open House seats against Republicans Travis Grantham, an incumbent and businessman, and Warren Petersen, who works in real estate and is in the state Senate.
Farnsworth, who opened four Benjamin Franklin Charter School campuses in the Valley, did not respond to an email requesting comment.
In LD 17, which covers a small slice of western Gilbert, one of two Democrats running there also is a former teacher. Jennifer Pawlik is the only Democrat in a three-way race for the two LD 17 House seats, taking on incumbent Jeff Weninger and newcomer Nora Ellen, both former members of Chandler City Council.
Pawlik taught for 17 years, the last nine of which have been in the Chandler Unified School District, and is a trainer of both public and charter school teachers for Spaulding Education International. She also teaches undergraduates in NAU’s College of Education on the campus of Chandler Gilbert Community College.
Ellen is vying to make a rare mother-son pair in the State Legislature since her son, current termed-out House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, is running for Senate in LD 17 against Steve Weichert, a Democrat who is clinical support director for the clinic in the Gila River Indian Community.
Not only do all three LD 12 GOP candidates have name recognition, but they are in a district that leans Republican and it’s a midterm election, which favors Republicans because their voters turn up at the ballot box.
In the last midterm election in 2014, statewide voter turnout was 47.52 percent, according to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office.
While no one knows what turnout will look like this time around, secretary of state spokesman Matt Roberts said, ““It’s impossible to tell with surety, but I think we’re looking at something between 50 percent to 60 percent.”
The Maricopa County Elections Department sent out 1.6 million ballots and as of last week and received 678,289 back – or 40 percent – said Sophia Solis, department spokeswoman. She added that 7,631 people voted early in person at one of the county’s Vote Centers. Oct. 31 was the last day to return a ballot by mail.
Legislative District 12 has 37 precincts in Maricopa County and one precinct in Pinal County. The number of registered Republicans in the 37 precincts was 72,493 compared with 33,461 registered Democrats, according to the latest data from the Arizona Secretary of State. Others or independents number 50,477.
According to the latest campaign finance filings, Petersen had the most money in his war chest – $65,000 to date. Farnsworth raised $45,000 and Grantham raised $44,000.
All three Democrats are Clean Elections candidates, meaning they get public funding for swearing off donations from political action committees and corporations. Brown raised $44,200; Bisaccia, $47,000 and Robinson, $43,000.
Despite the uphill battle, the races are winnable, according to Karvelis, a music teacher at a Tolleson elementary school.
“Schools cut across all party lines,” he said. “Children’s education is not a partisan thing. If you make a list of esteemed professionals of people in Arizona, the U.S. and world, on top are teachers. If a teacher is knocking on your door for your vote, that transcends party politics.”
Arizona Educators United, which also includes school administrators and support staff, has been motivating teachers and their supporters to get out the vote.
“We’ve knocked on over 50,000 doors already,” Karvelis said. “And we’ll get another 30,000 in the last week.”
He said the goal is to knock on 80,000 doors and he believed it will be reached.
The group also is doing phone banking, meeting with candidates to hold them accountable and holding small rallies to kick off canvassing, according to Karvelis.
The teacher uprising for better pay and better working conditions first started in West Virginia and soon swept to other states such as Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Colorado,
Teachers and their supporters donned red shirts in solidarity, and in Arizona they marched on the state Capitol and teachers walked out of their classrooms.
The statewide five-day strike spurred Gov. Doug Ducey to sign a budget that boosts teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020.
That, however, was just a drop in the bucket for those who say education in Arizona is still woefully underfunded.
State lawmakers cut $1.5 billion in funding for K-12 education since the recession, according to AZ Schools Now, a coalition of educators, parents, school board members and children’s advocates.
An attempt to address that wrong came in the form of a ballot measure. Proposition 207, or The Invest in Education Act, sought to fund Arizona education to the tune of $690 million a year by taxing higher-income earners, but it was booted off November’s ballot after the state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the measure’s wording was not clear.
That slap in the face further ignited education groups like Arizona Educators United to put out a call to put like-minded individuals into office.
“Anything can happen right now,” said Karvelis. “This cuts across party lines and party politics and gets down to where politics should be about, community.”
-Staff Writer Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report.