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In Wake Of “Education Session,” Democrats Run Teacher Candidates

On top of the Republican Senate primary and the oil tax referendum, there’s one more competitive race on tomorrow’s ballot – the contest for the Democrats’ lieutenant governor nominee.

In the aftermath of what Gov. Sean Parnell dubbed the “education session,” half a dozen of the new candidates being fielded by the Democratic Party are educators. The most high profile of these is Bob Williams, who was once named the Alaska Teacher of the Year and is now a candidate for lieutenant governor.

Bob Williams teaches math at Palmer’s Colony High, not government. But over the past year, he’s gotten a pretty serious crash course in civics.

“Going through this process of running for lieutenant governor, I thought like maybe you could watch a debate before and kind of say, ‘Oh, maybe I’d do this.’ I thought you could maybe vicariously go through things,” Williams says. “And one of the things I’ve learned is you really can’t learn any better than by doing.”

Williams is a first time candidate, and he’s running against State Sen. Hollis French for the Democratic nomination. Before running for lieutenant governor, the closest Williams had ever gotten to elected politics was participating in Boys State, a mock legislature conference for high schoolers. He presents himself as a Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Juneau type figure, and speaks with the same level of enthusiasm he might use to get kids excited about algebra.

Because he’s starting big and running for a statewide seat, Williams says he’s encountered some skepticism toward his campaign.

“People would tell me, ‘You don’t have a lot of money. You’re not wealthy. You can’t do it,’” says Williams. “That means it’s going to be hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be impossible. And so you talk to a lot of people, and a lot of people have said, ‘Well, you’re just a teacher. And I’d say, “What are you looking for in your next lieutenant governor? Teachers deal with conflict in a civil way, they build trust, they have integrity.”

On the issues, Williams, like French, mostly seems to line up with the Democratic party platform. But as a teacher, he says education issues really helped motivate him to file for office. When Williams declared his candidacy last year, it was shortly after a legislative session where lawmakers considered allowing public dollars to go to private schools.

“The reform efforts that were being pushed forward in the last couple of years haven’t made sense. And so, that’s one of the things where you push and say, ‘We need something different.’”

Williams is far from the only teacher running this cycle. Democrats are fielding five new legislative candidates who are active or retired teachers, and four of those are running in the Republican stronghold of Mat-Su. In Ketchikan, teacher Dan Ortiz is running as an independent candidate.

Williams says the crew of teacher-candidates will sometimes chat about their campaigns with the purpose of “giving advice and a lot of moral support – and some help on policy on education.”

Zack Fields is a spokesperson for the Alaska Democratic Party, and he says a heated fight over education funding, where a grassroots coalition of parents fought for an increase in classroom dollars “definitely catalyzed a lot of public anger,” and it resulted in an “unusually large number” of teachers being involved in this election cycle.

In the State Legislature, fewer than a handful of candidates have teaching experience at the K-12 level, and most of those lawmakers are Republicans.

If Williams were to pull off two upsets – one on Tuesday against Hollis French, and another in November as part of a gubernatorial ticket with Byron Mallott against incumbent Gov. Sean Parnell – the office of lieutenant governor wouldn’t afford him too much opportunity to get hands on with education policy. The office has few powers, but it would elevate his public profile. He says he’d approach the job like his current one.

“I’ve been building trust in the classroom and in the community for 20 years,” says Williams. “My classroom just got a lot bigger. I’ll be doing that across the state of Alaska.”

And if elected politics don’t pan out, at least the experience will have been an educational one.

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