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GOP senators reject union exec for education board

January 12, 2007|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The California Teachers Assn., one of the state's most politically powerful unions, suffered a rare rebuke Thursday when Republican state senators blocked the confirmation of a union leader to another term on the state Board of Education.

The Senate rejected Joe Nunez, the CTA's deputy executive director and a chief architect of public labor unions' successful campaign against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2005 effort to upend Sacramento politics. Nunez was appointed to the board in 2001 by former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. To the surprise of many, Schwarzenegger reappointed him last year.

To be confirmed, Nunez needed two-thirds of the Senate, but only two of 15 Republicans voted for him, which wasn't enough for a supermajority. Both of them, Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria and Jeff Denham of Salinas, had been endorsed by the union in a previous election.

"He was on the board and supposed to be independent, and he was running a campaign against the administration for his employer," said Assembly GOP leader Dick Ackerman of Irvine. "This is a conflict you can't get around."

All 23 Democrats present -- all but one of whom had been endorsed by the union -- voted for Nunez. But he still fell two votes short because two Democrats were out sick.

The defeat was the first time one of Schwarzenegger's nominees was openly rejected because of his own party's opposition, but there was little evidence that the governor had made Nunez's return a priority. Aides did not campaign for his reappointment until recent days, even though it was clear that the nomination was in trouble.

Nunez did not respond to a request for comment. The administration, which in the past has expressed disappointment when Democrats have rejected nominees -- in some cases, explicitly praising those rejected -- betrayed little regret in its statement.

"The governor recognizes the importance of the legislative process and he looks forward to working with lawmakers to continue improving education for California children," said a spokeswoman, Sabrina Lockhart.

Nunez dismayed Democrats during his confirmation hearing by failing to show what they felt was enough concern about the immediate need to lower the dropout rate in California schools and for not exhibiting a strong enough grasp of its causes and possible solutions.

He infuriated Republicans by refusing to say explicitly that he would put aside his role with the union when evaluating educational policies as a member of the board.

"He could not cite a single incidence where he could vote against the CTA," said Sen. Dave Cox of Fair Oaks. "His testimony was the reason that members of our caucus didn't vote for him."

Democrats and the teachers union portrayed Nunez's rejection as a slap at Schwarzenegger by Republican lawmakers opposed to the direction he has taken since his 2005 special election defeat. GOP legislators reluctantly went along with some of his $116-billion public works package last year and are already pledging to oppose key elements of his healthcare reform proposal unveiled Monday.

"They wanted to send a message to the governor," said Barbara Kerr, president of the teachers union. "It's their loss. Joe is knowledgeable, he has years of experience and history, and he's an award-winning teacher.

"To put partisan politics over someone who has proved himself on the board for five years is petty, and it diminished California."

The union, with Nunez as a central strategist, had been the most aggressive financial backer in the campaign to block Schwarzenegger's 2005 special election agenda. The union opposed initiatives that would have limited teacher tenure, made it harder for public employee unions to raise money for political purposes and weakened the CTA-sponsored law that guarantees a set amount of state revenue for schools.

Also in the Senate on Thursday, Rachelle B. Chong was unanimously confirmed to the state Public Utilities Commission despite strong opposition from consumer groups. They accused Chong, in her interim year on the board, of being too accommodating to telecommunication companies while watering down rules intended to protect consumers.

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