Who are these people running to be Idaho schools chief?

The Republican candidates for superintendent are scrambling for name recognition.

broberts@idahostatesman.comFebruary 21, 2014 

When the final bell rings on a Friday afternoon at William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, principal Randy Jensen hops into his car for the weekend and heads across Idaho. He’s in a race to overcome anonymity.

Jensen is one of four candidates in the Republican primary race to succeed Tom Luna, the incumbent state superintendent of public instruction, who announced in January he wasn’t running again. Besides their party affiliation, the four — John Eynon, 61, a Cottonwood School District music teacher; Andy Grover, Melba’s superintendent (who isn’t officially in the race yet); Sherri Ybarra, a Mountain Home curriculum director; and Jensen, 52 — have at least two things in common: All are Idaho educators. And most people in Idaho have never heard of them.

“You do your best to shake hands and share your message,” Jensen said. “It’s hard on the family.”

On May 20, Republicans will be asked to vote on one of four candidates — maybe more if anyone else jumps in between now and the March 14 sign-up deadline. A few other names have surfaced as possible contenders: Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls; Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett; and Steve Smylie, a Boise educator who lost to Luna in the Republican primary in 2006.

The lack of a well-known name as a contender to succeed the high-profile Luna is a concern to some Republicans.

“It favors the Democrat,” said state Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the Senate Education Committee chairman, who likes Grover.

The Democrat is Jana Jones, the former No. 2 person in the Idaho State Department of Education, who narrowly lost to Luna in 2006.

Luna’s unexpected announcement may be partly responsible for the lack of a big-name Republican contender, said Jim Weatherby, a longtime political observer and retired director of Boise State University’s Public Policy Center.

“I think people were caught off guard,” Weatherby said. And with only three months until the primary, it may have raised questions in potential candidates’ minds about whether there was enough time to create a political infrastructure and raise the money needed to win.

Lack of recognition hasn’t always been a minus in the race for superintendent. In 1998, Democrat Marilyn Howard, an elementary school principal in Moscow, came out of nowhere to eke out a primary victory over one-time Meridian School District trustee Wally Hedrick, who had been well-known in education circles.

In those days of an open primary in Idaho politics, many Democrats who were confident Hedrick would win crossed over to vote for Republican incumbent Anne Fox, who was drawing criticism in her own party for being a political loner who couldn’t bring groups together to forge new ideas in education, and was considered vulnerable.

“I guess that essentially was the kiss of death,” Hedrick said at the time.

Howard went on to beat Fox, with the help of Republicans.

Lack of name recognition did work against Luna when he ran against Howard in 2002. In the primary, where he was unopposed, he got 100,000 votes. But when his campaign took a poll two weeks later, “only 8 percent of Republicans said they had ever even heard of me.” He lost that election, before returning in 2006 to defeat Jones and become superintendent.

For the four candidates now in the race, a fast-paced schedule is required to get to all the Lincoln Day dinners where Republican faithful gather and candidates can give their elevator speeches.

Ybarra, who says she’s been planning this race for a year, will be in Boise part of this weekend.

“It’s not something you wake up in the morning and decide to do,” she said.

Eynon, the music teacher, is running against Common Core, a set of educational standards adopted by 45 states. He’s doing Skype interviews with tea party groups across the state and getting information on “Idahoans for Local Education,” a website operated by Stephanie Zimmerman, a critic of Common Core. Zimmerman said she has tried to reach several of the other candidates to include their information, too, but has not received calls back.

The tea party is an easy sell for Eynon’s anti-Common Core position, but he’ll need more than that to win. So he’s doing radio shows, talking to newspapers and shaking hands at those Lincoln Day dinners.

Andy Grover, the Melba superintendent, plans to make a formal announcement Feb. 28. He’s pushing his ground-level experience — he is the only superintendent in the race.

He’s backing Common Core and Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education, which calls for more money for education and building a system based on students mastering one subject before they move to the next.

Jensen, like Eynon, got into the race expecting to run against Luna. Luna was weakened by the loss of his Students Come First reforms in fall 2012 and vulnerable to criticism for not bringing more people together to craft those reforms.

“I think not building the collaboration was a mistake,” Jensen said when he announced. “The time is right now for collaboration.”

Bill Roberts: 377-6408,Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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