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Arizona School Superintendent Race Too Close to Call

Kathy Hoffman at the State Capitol.
Kathy Hoffman at the State Capitol.
Courtesy of Kathy Hoffman

The race between Republican and Democratic candidates for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction remained too close to call Wednesday morning.

Frank Riggs, a Republican businessman and ex-California Congressman, eked out a slight lead of fewer than 6,000 votes as of 11:18 p.m. over his Democratic opponent, Kathy Hoffman,   834,440 votes to 828,955, according to the Secretary of State's website.

His lead fell to just 620 votes at about 10:15 Tuesday night, but after that it hovered between about 2,500 and 5,000 votes as updates came in every few minutes from the Arizona Secretary of State's Office.

Neither Hoffman nor Riggs returned a message late Tuesday, but a member of Hoffman's campaign texted to acknowledge the race was too close to call.

Kathy Hoffman, a 32-year-old speech pathologist and novice politician, was the less-likely candidate from the start of the race. The poor shape of Arizona schools propelled her to public service — with the help of a progressive (some say radical socialist) campaign manager, Noah Karvelis , one of the key leaders of the #RedforEd movement that sparked a massive teacher strike last spring over low salaries. Karvelis later announced that he stepped down from her campaign in April, saying it wasn't because of the heavy criticism he'd drawn from conservatives during the disruptive strike. Campaign finance records show he'd been paid about $4,000 up until April, then received about $22,000 from Hoffman's campaign in early May.

Hoffman had worked as a speech pathologist at several Arizona public schools for five years before quitting earlier this year to begin her aggressive campaign. A month before the August 28 primary election, Hoffman launched a personal attack against her opponent, David Schapira, a Democrat and former state lawmaker from Tempe, calling him a bully in statements and advertisements. One ad featured two anonymous women critical of Schapira, who was allegedly their former boss — one calls him a "bully."

The attacks led to a rebuke by Felecia Rotellini, chair of the Arizona Democratic Party at the time. But Hoffman won the primary with 52 percent of the vote.

The general election pitted the young, Democratic newcomer against an older, Republican politician and businessman. In other words, exactly the kind of person progressives want to see lose. But if Riggs can keep his razor-thin edge, he won't lose. And maybe that wouldn't be so bad, from a liberal perspective.

Riggs has an impressive resume. Why he ran for superintendent at this stage of life is unknown: Was it boredom, the need for a return to power, a quest to make more business connections? But it seems clear he'll make a firm break from the days of Diane Douglas, the Republican he beat in the August primary. Whether Riggs or Hoffman wins, there'll be no more talk of dinosaurs on Noah's Ark, no attempts to water down references to climate change in school standards.

The former California cop has been a U.S. Representative not once, but three times. That was back in the 1990s. He served his time in Congress with a few minor successes — some say they were fewer then he would like to admit — and, amazingly for a Congressman, no scandals. He drew scorn from certain sectors for his support of a police action in his California office once in which environmentalist demonstrators who had chained themselves to a tree stump were basically tortured with tear gas applied directly around their eyes. Riggs, who hadn't been in the office at the time, said the action was appropriate.

After leaving Congress, Riggs started a new career related to charter schools. He'd helped pass legislation to enable the funding of charter schools with taxpayer money. In an interview during the campaign, Riggs said he's interested in reforming the charter school system by making it more accountable and transparent to taxpayers.

He's not a fan of Trump, and he's skeptical that the state's Empowerment Scholarship Account program should be expanded. (No worries there — the Prop 305 expansion of the ESA program appears to have gone down in flames on Tuesday.)

No one would mistake Riggs for a liberal. But if the vote comes out his way, he just may be the education advocate Arizona's looking for.

New Times will update this story when more results come in this week.

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