David W. Packard’s $500,000 campaign contribution last week to Gloria Matta Tuchman could well turn around an election that seemed to be going to her opponent, incumbent state schools chief Delaine Eastin, despite Eastin’s chronic weakness in the polls.

But the donation is significant not only for its size — the largest individual contribution ever made to a California political candidate — but also because it’s one of the few large recent political contributions in a race for any school office, state or local, from someone who’s not either an ideologue or the representative of a vested interest.

That should make Packard’s interest in the race a refreshing political development. But in its impulsive, last-minute timing and its choice of beneficiary, it lurches to the edge of quirkiness and beyond.

Packard, the son of the late co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, acknowledges he’s never given money to any political campaign, with the sole exception of $1,000 that his father encouraged him to give a few years ago to Rep. Tom Campbell of Palo Alto, one of the rare moderate Republicans left in Congress.

Packard the father was a major contributor to the open primary initiative of 1996; a backer of former U.S. Senate candidate and congressman Ed Zschau; and a major figure in other moderate Republican causes. Packard the son, a former teacher of Greek at UCLA and the University of North Carolina, has been interested mainly in cultural issues. He was also instrumental in engineering an important $15 million contribution from the family foundation for phonics-based reading reform in a number of urban California school districts.

Tuchman hardly fits those precedents. Her primary support so far has come from voucher advocates and Christian conservatives such as Howard Ahmanson, another rich son of a rich father. Her campaign, by emphasizing the support Eastin has received from a gay and lesbian organization, has veered into ill-disguised homophobia. If she’s known for anything, it’s as the co-author of Proposition 227, which was designed to prohibit bilingual education in California and has so far caused more chaos than reform.

What moved Packard to his last-minute leap, he said, was his conviction that Eastin, despite her efforts to take credit for them, has stood in the way of the reforms in reading and math approved by the state Board of Education in the past couple of years. Eastin, said his press release, with considerable truth, “is a career politician who takes credit for achievements she actually obstructed.” To back that up, he quoted from my column in this space last week that talked about Eastin’s false claims.

What Packard did not mention was the column’s strong criticism of Tuchman as an advocate of vouchers, as a person who had never shown any ability to run an agency as large and complex as the state Department of Education and as a candidate whose basic support had been coming from the nutcake right. Was he then supporting her primarily because she is not Eastin?

Yes, he acknowledged, that was a lot of it. “The fact that she’s not Delaine is pretty important.” He’d read Tuchman’s campaign pamphlet, and “most of the things in it made sense,” even if he was a little uncomfortable with the sources of her support. Eastin “just irritates me when I listen to her.” He also acknowledged an interest in vouchers; the Packard Foundation has funded two projects to evaluate ongoing voucher experiments for low-income inner-city children funded by private individuals, one in San Antonio, the other in New York.

Packard seems to believe that however lacking Tuchman is in experience, she will, in the words of his press release, “assemble a first-class team and provide leadership for the Department of Education to implement the sensible policies set by the state Board of Education.” But if Democrat Gray Davis becomes the next governor, as seems highly likely, his close association with the California Teachers Association may quickly produce a very different board that will be as much at odds with Republican Tuchman as Eastin has been with the present board. And what if Tuchman goes over the deep end of privatization, homophobia and creationism?

Given both Packard’s reputation and that of his family, the strategic use of a donation of this size might have made an enormous difference, either for a well-chosen candidate or some other educational cause. But a hasty eleventh-hour dump of a half-million dollars into a race for an office that has so little authority — and then on behalf of a candidate of such little stature and such close association with the far right — suggests nothing so much as a fatal combination of impulse and naivet.

Packard says he wants to enable Tuchman to get her message out: Because of him she is now airing her own last-minute TV ads. He says he also hopes his contribution will encourage other donations — a hope that under other circumstances a lot of people might share. It would be nice if moderate people of means again developed a deep interest in the schools.

But anyone who kicks into this campaign is as likely to be cast under the shadow of the reclusive right-wingers who got Tuchman this far as he will be flattered by association with an otherwise thoughtful moderate such as Packard. Why did Packard have to pick her for his initial foray?

By definition, only the rich can afford the fantasy that everything in politics can be quick-fixed with a lot of money: The landscape is dotted with their illusions. But on the far side of that fantasy are the harsher realities of politics including, in this case, Tuchman herself. Perhaps she will now win and gladden Packard’s heart. But she could as easily win and make him wish that he’d never heard of her.

Peter Schrag’s column appears in The Bee on Wednesday. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779.

Comments are closed.