YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Booming Tracy Has Education on Its Mind

The quality of schools is a key concern for most residents of this San Francisco suburb, where politicians' misbehavior runs a close second.


TRACY, Calif. — In this farm town turned Bay Area bedroom community, where home prices are tolerable but commutes are not, a single issue has captured voters' attention like a car wreck in the middle of rush-hour traffic.

From the 5:30 a.m. Baptist men's Bible study group to the annual picnic of a biker club called the Wild Pigs, from the daily Pop Warner football practice to the weekly Rotary luncheon, what they're talking about here is education.

Class size, teacher testing and crumbling campuses top the list of concerns in this burgeoning town of 48,000, as the traditional Labor Day campaign season kicks off and residents' minds turn sluggishly to the election.

"If it's Tracy, it must be schools. Overcrowding," says an emphatic Shelley Buchberger, 36, as she watches her son, Douglas, execute practice drills in the lipstick-melting heat. "I had to pull Douglas out [of middle school] because he wasn't getting the education he needed. . . . I put him in a magnet school. The class is smaller, and there's more individual attention."

Here, where the Bay Area eases into the state's agricultural heartland, lies Northern California's answer to the Inland Empire, all startling growth and electoral importance.

The school district has more than doubled in size in the past decade; the city threatens to also, as well-landscaped subdivisions in tasteful earth tones rise from the fields of former farms. No candidate for statewide office can afford to lose in a region like this one, a place that guarantees success to neither Democrat nor Republican, that put Bill Clinton in the White House and Pete Wilson in the governor's mansion, that acts a lot like the state as a whole when Californians go off to the voting booth.

Which could make Nov. 3 a dicey proposition for the men and women in the race for public office. If anything other than education snags the focus of residents here, it is the bad behavior of America's politicians--both on the ballot and off.

In dozens of recent interviews throughout this 18-square-mile city, residents voiced umbrage at what they consider the decline of America's moral standards. And the poster boy for the fall of general decency?

That one's a no-brainer at the Four Corners restaurant, where the morning regulars play bar dice to see who picks up the coffee tab and Bill Clinton wins the dubious distinction hands down.

"It's not just what he did. It's that he lied about it," says Bill Edwards, 73, sipping coffee with the hearing-aid-and-plaid-shirt set. "If he lied about adultery, what else would he lie about?"

"If he lied about Monica, did he really not inhale?" asks an arch Allen Cossey, 53.

"I'm not saying everybody's honest," offers restaurant owner Gary Reich, 44. "I don't know if they should impeach him or if it would be good for the country. But next time we should have someone with some integrity."

Well, don't look to Sen. Barbara Boxer--a Democrat running for reelection--to provide that little character trait, they snort here, sitting at the lunch counter beneath the stuffed deer head.

"Between her and Janet Reno, I can't take either one of them," says Ed Perez, 66. And he's the Democrat of the bunch.

But for all of Tracy's certainty about ethics and education, about the importance of children and the need to guide their futures wisely, voters here get a lot fuzzier when the talk turns to political particulars.

There are some, like computer analyst Albert Harps, 47, who are party stalwarts and know at this early date just who they will pick for governor and why. A long-time Democrat, Harps says, "I'm going with Gray [Davis], the lieutenant governor. He has insight on how things are run."

Past Rotary President Don Cose, who has been building houses here for more than 30 years, says he will vote for Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren "because he's a Republican." Not because Cose particularly likes him. Not because the two men are on the same psychic wavelength.

Cose's Republican ballot will be a strategic one. It would be a crime, this Tracy grandfather insists, for a Democrat to be in charge when the state's congressional districts are redrawn to reflect the new census in 2000.

Few voters are quite as sophisticated as Cose, particularly at this stage of the election process. In fact, with election day nearly two months away, most are rather vague about just who is running for what.

Lungren and Davis are largely lost in a fog of electoral inattention. Even those voters who can dredge up the men's names have trouble going much beyond that.

An undecided Shelley Buchberger on the governor's race: "This election is going to be difficult. They both say they stand for the same things. It's not who's the honest one; it's who's going to make their promises come true."

Los Angeles Times Articles