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Contentious education bill becomes test for statewide candidates

TALLAHASSEE — At a recent campaign pitch to the Florida Farm Bureau, attorney general candidate Holly Benson fielded this discordant question: "Where do you stand on Senate Bill 6?"

"I think every parent has an interest in this," said Benson, a Republican.

Scott Maddox, a Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, recently e-mailed his supporters to call Gov. Charlie Crist and urge him to veto the legislation.

On the campaign trial, "that's the only thing people want to talk about," Maddox said. "I'm out there wanting to talk about consumer and agriculture issues but this is foremost in voters' minds."

The landmark, yet controversial, legislation that links teacher pay to test scores is emerging as a litmus test for statewide political candidates with an eye toward November, even those with seemingly no connection to the education realm.

"They hit a hot button issue, and when it happens they try to take advantage of it," said Darryl Paulson, a retired political science professor in St. Petersburg.

Sponsored by Republican Party chairman and state Sen. John Thrasher, the legislation overhauls how teachers are paid and threatens so-called teacher tenure.

It fractured the Legislature politically, with some Republicans breaking party ranks. And that is now spilling into the election.

The interest from the U.S. Senate race, featuring Crist, and the gubernatorial contest is obvious. But a number of trade groups — including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida — are using a candidate's position on the bill to make decisions about endorsements and campaign cash in down-ballot races.

"We are looking to see what statewide candidates are saying about this," said Barney Bishop, the AIF president, "and whether they are going to look at it from the business perspective. We think it's important to change the education system."

Political observers suggest it holds different weight for Democrats and Republicans.

On the left side, candidates are universally against the bill, which is opposed by the Florida Education Association, a powerful electoral force representing teachers statewide.

"In terms of what's going to happen in November, it is a lifetime away," said state Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Democratic candidate for attorney general. "But . . . I have never seen people so upset over a bill in my eight years in the Legislature."

For Republicans, it's more an ideological test, particularly because former Gov. Jeb Bush, the GOP standard-bearer, is a force behind the measure. The bulk of Republican candidates support the bill with two notable exceptions: gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, a state senator, and state Rep. Pat Patterson, a contender for chief financial officer.

Dockery's primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, is a strong supporter who said he is "committed to implementing and expanding aggressive reform efforts."

Patterson, who denied his vote held political implications, is challenging Senate President Jeff Atwater, a supporter who is a target of the state's teachers union.

Still other leading candidates are reticent to take a stand on such a polarizing issue, such as Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, a GOP candidate for attorney general.

"Until the governor makes his decision," he said, "it would be improper for me to comment."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Where they stand

Here's a look at how leading statewide candidates for November's election are positioning themselves on the controversial Senate Bill 6.

Republicans for

Marco Rubio, U.S. Senate; Bill McCollum, governor; Jeff Atwater, chief financial officer; Adam Putnam, agriculture commissioner; Holly Benson, attorney general

Republicans against

Paula Dockery, governor; Pat Patterson, chief financial officer

Republicans undecided*

Charlie Crist, U.S. Senate; Jeff Kottkamp, attorney general

Democrats against**

Kendrick Meek, U.S. Senate; Alex Sink, governor; Dan Gelber and Dave Aronberg, attorney general; Loranne Ausley, chief financial officer; Scott Maddox, agriculture commissioner

* Republican attorney general candidate Pam Bondi did not reply

** No Democrats are for the measure

Contentious education bill becomes test for statewide candidates 04/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 11:06am]
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