When it comes to money, the 2012 election contest for Indiana superintendent of public instruction is shaping up as Bambi vs. Godzilla.
Godzilla would be current superintendent Tony Bennett, a Republican who was sitting on a campaign war chest of $549,758 as of the end of March and had established a network of donors that includes fabulously rich Wall Streeters and members of the education politics elite.
Democrats won’t choose Bambi until the state party convention in June. Justin Oakley, a Martinsville teacher and the one announced Democratic candidate, has $8,786.71 in his campaign account. He raised $6,142 in the first three months of the year, with no contribution bigger than $250.
Bennett, meanwhile, was raking in the cash. It looks like he hit the road in early February and, after some high-buck fundraisers, came back flush. His campaign brought in $67,484 between Feb. 2-14, almost 95 percent of it outside of Indiana.
Add three more large contributions this month — $10,000 from Carmel businessman Mike Weaver, $10,000 from New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer and $15,000 from the Fort Wayne-based Northeast Indiana PAC for Better Government LLC – and Bennett’s advantage is even more lopsided.
Bennett’s biggest donor has been Dean White, a Merrillville hotel developer. White gave the campaign $50,000 in March after having given another $50,000 in 2011. Also right up there is Daniel Loeb, another New York hedge-fund manager, who gave Bennett $25,000 in February. Loeb, described in media accounts as “notoriously prickly,” reportedly paid $45 million cash in 2007 for his penthouse unit at 15 Central Park West, a New York condo price record at the time.
It’s sort of touching, isn’t it, that Loeb apparently cares enough about Indiana children that he can take a break from making money and sending rude emails to competitors to do his part in ensuring that Tony Bennett gets re-elected. Of course it’s not just Indiana, and not just education, that gets his attention. Loeb ranks No. 6 and Singer No. 2 among hedge fund managers for political contributions.
Bennett also got $1,500 from Charter Schools USA, the Florida company that his Department of Education picked to take over three low-performing high schools. And $10,000 from Robert Luddy, the founder of a chain of private schools and the big money behind the effort to kill off socioeconomic integration in Wake County, N.C., schools. The list goes on.
Of course the 2012 election is still six months away. And Bennett is notoriously unpopular among teachers, who could provide grass-roots support for whoever runs against him. But as a matter of strategy, teachers – and the Indiana State Teachers Association, if and when it decides to enter the political fray this year – might be better off to put their efforts into the Indiana governor’s race between Democrat John Gregg and Republican Mike Pence.
Just for fun, imagine a situation in which Bennett loses and Pence wins. The state legislature, which is almost certain to be controlled by Republicans given the redistricting that took place last year, could simply change superintendent of public instruction from an elected to an appointed position. And the first appointment would be made by Gov. Pence.