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State school superintendent race draws 15 candidates
Political scientists say reasons for running vary; chance of runoff high
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State school superintendent


Mary Bacallao, Fayetteville

Ashley Bell, Gainesville

Michael Buck, Rome

Sharyl Dawes, Johns Creek

Allen Fort, Valdosta

Nancy Jester, Dunwoody

Fitz Johnson, Marietta

Kira Willis, Roswell

Richard Woods, Tifton


Tarnisha Dent, Atlanta

Denise Freeman, Tignall

Jurita Mays, Decatur

Alisha Morgan, Austell

Rita Robinzine, Lithonia

Valarie Wilson, Decatur

Primary election dates

Registration deadline: April 21

Advance voting: Monday-Friday beginning April 28 and Saturday, May 10

Primary: May 20

Primary runoff: July 22

It’s a nice gig for the person who can get it.

With John Barge vacating the state school superintendent position, there are 15 candidates — six Democrats and nine Republicans — vying to take the seat.

“Income and benefits are not that bad,” said Heather Hollimon, Brenau University’s associate professor of political science. “They’re pretty nice. And the ability to work in state government, that’s nice. You can implement a lot of change as state superintendent.”

And with Barge leaving, it’s the only open seat in the statewide election.

“This is the year where we elect all of our constitutional officers and in other positions the incumbents are seeking re-election,” said Charles Bullock, Richard B. Russell professor of political science at the University of Georgia. “The odds of knocking off incumbents are never good. So if you’re looking to run for something statewide this year, this is your most promising position to seek.”

Candidates choose to run for a variety of reasons, some because they really do feel they would be best suited to the position. Others run not because they think they will win, but because they are trying to gain political experience.

“If you do it at all as a serious candidate, you’re going to be traveling the state,” Bullock said. “You’re going to be making contacts throughout the state and pulling together lists of supporters, lists of campaign contributors. That information would then be valuable if at some later date you run for something else.”

People may also choose to run for a public position if certain issues have been brought to the forefront. Education has been in the spotlight with interest swirling around the Common Core set of standards implemented in Georgia schools, the Atlanta Public Schools test cheating controversy and lack of state and local funds for districts across the state.

The level of the position can also pique the interest of people who want to run for public office, but not interested in the glare that can often come with public service.

“State superintendent is not one of those high-ticket offices,” Hollimon said, explaining the level of interest and scrutiny the candidates will get isn’t as high as for gubernatorial candidates.

“It’s more tempting to run (for state school superintendent) because you’re not going to be in the news every single day,” she said. “If you’re one in 15, they’re not going to be digging deep into all of them.”

But Hollimon said she doesn’t think there would ever be 15 candidates for the governor’s position.

“If there were 15 for governor, (the media) would dig that deep,” she added. “The pool would get narrowed down quite quickly.”

While the state school superintendent candidates duke it out, a larger field can mean more complications for voters who may not have the time or patience to weed through the issues.

“First of all, it means that the vote is very likely to be split among a great number of candidates,” University of North Georgia political science professor Carl Cavalli said. “The likelihood that you’re going to have a runoff increases greatly, and also the likelihood that you can get an unusual result. The race for second or third place could be only a couple of percentage points, so somebody who normally wouldn’t have the support of much of the state party in a primary might wind up in a runoff and get a much greater percentage than they would have if it was a simple one-on-one (election).”

Often voting, especially in a large field of candidates, is not as much about the issues as it is about strategic placement on the ballot.

“If you know of the name of any one of these in your party, you’ll probably vote for that person because that will be the only name you recognize,” Bullock said. “And it’ll work to the advantage of the candidates who appear at the top of the ballot. Alphabetically, if you come first, that’s maybe worth as much as 5 percentage points or so.

“Voters working their way through, trying to get through the ballot as quickly as they can, go for the first one.”
There is also the possibility of more obscure candidates making their way through as more well-known candidates would split voting percentages.

“If you have candidates who are similarly situated in terms of their issues, positions and ideology, the votes might cancel each other out and you wind up getting someone else finishing ahead of those two,” Cavalli said. “So if you have two people with the same views basically, and a third person with a different view, you might have upward of a majority or even two-thirds of the voting public favoring one of the first two who ordinarily would have won in a one-on-one, but they cancel each other out.”

In the end, though, while state school superintendent may not be the big-ticket item like the governor’s position, there’s still a sentimentality attached that appeals to both candidates and voters.

“I guess we all think we know something about education,” Bullock said. “After all, we’ve all been through it. It’s not like (agriculture) commissioner where you grew up in the city and know nothing about farming.

“You’ve been to school. Maybe you’ve got children currently in the school. So you think, ‘Yeah, I’ve certainly got some views on whether the schools are doing well.’”

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