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In a surprisingly contentious 2 1/2-hour meeting, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Sheila Jackson over Sharon Whitehurst-Payne in the citywide runoff election for the San Diego Unified School District board seat in District “E.” However, the club was unable to come to an endorsement decision in District “D,” though it rated one of the candidates, Benjamin Hueso, “acceptable.”

Sheila Jackson
Sheila Jackson

Benjamin Hueso
Benjamin Hueso

Luis Acle
Luis Acle

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne
Sharon Whitehurst-Payne

Queer Democrats Endorse Jackson for School Board, Rate Hueso “Acceptable”

Copyright © 2004 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • Used by permission

In a surprisingly contentious 2 1/2-hour meeting, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Sheila Jackson over Sharon Whitehurst-Payne in the citywide runoff election for the San Diego Unified School District board seat in District “E.” However, the club was unable to come to an endorsement decision in District “D,” though it rated one of the candidates, Benjamin Hueso, “acceptable.”

The club’s endorsement procedure requires candidates both to fill out a club questionnaire, based mostly though not exclusively on Queer-related issues, and to appear at a club meeting to make a presentation and take questions from members. Jackson and Hueso both filled out the questionnaire, and scored high: 86 points out of a possible 100 for Jackson and 96 for Hueso. Whitehurst-Payne didn’t fill out the questionnaire at all and Hueso’s opponent, Luis Acle, said that because so many of the questions dealt with issues not directly related to the school board — and because, as a Republican, the club couldn’t endorse him anyway — filled out the background questions in the preamble but didn’t answer the issue questions.

Whitehurst-Payne introduced herself as a retired teacher and said, “I’m very concerned about what I see happening in the San Diego city schools, how our children are graduating and what’s happening to children of color. We’re a polarized district, teachers against administrators, and we need to come together for the children. … The budget shortage is a big concern right now, but there are things we’re doing in this district that make no sense, like channeling money through San Diego State University and outside foundations and losing 13 to 15 percent in the process. … I want to pull people together, not to divide.”

Jackson, also a San Diego Unified School District teacher as well as a parent of two — there are “strong parallels” between those two roles, she said — criticized Whitehurst-Payne for not taking an interest in the school district or community activism in general until she retired. “I didn’t wait to retire to do something,” she said. “I resigned so I could do something right now.” Jackson also said that before joining the district as a teacher eight years ago she spent 20 years in the Navy: “I was the first African-American female to go to Navy medical school and the first female to have her own billet,” she said. Like her opponent, she closed her presentation by saying she would be a “consensus builder” on the board.

The debate between Hueso and Acle focused much more on the overall politics of the school district and in particular the candidates’ relationship to the controversial superintendent, Alan Bersin. Club members were left with a choice between Hueso and Acle because, of the four candidates who announced in the primary election, Acle was the only one who actually fulfilled the signature requirements to get on the ballot. Hueso, Guadalupe Corona (whom the club endorsed in the primary) and Pilar Arballo all fell short, largely due to confusion about where the district lines were. All three filed suit to be placed on the ballot anyway, and the current board chose not to oppose Hueso’s lawsuit but did fight the Corona and Arballo suits and won rulings keeping them off the ballot.

A number of published accounts in local alternative papers, particularly the Reader and CityBeat, charged that the district board’s pro-Bersin majority had let Hueso on the ballot but had successfully fought to keep Corona and Arballo off because Hueso was a pro-Bersin candidate while Corona and Arballo had pledged to deal more critically with him. One of the issues raised in the club debate was that Hueso’s literature lists two of the three current pro-Bersin board members as endorsing him.

Acle, in his opening statement to the club, established himself as the candidate for change. “The question is, do we want change or do we want the status quo?” he said. “I have not been endorsed by the three people on the current board majority. If you want changes in our priorities for spending money, vote for me.”

Hueso used his opening statement to address an issue that had cost him votes in the club’s endorsement process for the primary: his answer on the questionnaire that he supported the Bush administration’s “gag rule” against giving money to international family-planning organizations that offer information about abortion. “I have changed my mind on that, now that I have realized how many people in Africa, especially Kenya, are being decimated by AIDS and could be saved by simple interventions,” he said. He also drew a contrast between himself and Acle, describing himself as “very connected with my community” and saying that Acle “is very disconnected with his community and as a teacher has never been before the board.”

The questions club members asked the board candidates ranged from whether the district should offer support services for Transgender youth to whether the schools should allow Queer-straight student alliances to organize on high schools as campus clubs, whether they should allow the Boy Scouts of America to meet on school grounds, how much (if any) they should cut back on student health care and, in Jackson’s case, about her endorsement of school prayer on the club’s questionnaire. “I support a moment of silence for students to pray to whomever they wish before they start the school day,” said Jackson.

On the question of support services for Transgender youth, Hueso said he was concerned about whether the district could afford it in its current financial state. Acle said he didn’t want to go beyond federal and state requirements on this issue. Whitehurst-Payne compared it to students who violate so-called “zero tolerance” policies against bringing drugs or weapons to school and said, “Whatever issues the students bring to the classroom, we need to address them.”

Jackson gave the most progressive answer of any of the four. “I think the health and welfare of all our students are very important and I want to make sure we have the materials for a tolerance-training curriculum,” she said. “We did have tolerance-training for teachers but now it’s been taken away. When we had that, test scores were actually higher because students felt safe.”

During the club members’ debate on the District “E” endorsement, concerns focused on Jackson’s lukewarm support for Queers in the military. Perhaps reflecting her own military background, she said she would support allowing openly Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender people in the U.S. military only “if berthing is available and safety needs [are] met.” She also raised some hackles among club members for saying that she would support prohibiting discrimination against people with AIDS or “actual or perceived HIV status” only “while healthy.”

“Maybe she’s not aware that discrimination based on being sick is illegal under federal law,” club member Bryan Wildenthal said regarding Jackson’s answer to that question. But he was much more concerned about Whitehurst-Payne’s background and especially her statement “that it would be ‘divisive’ to fill out the questionnaire, [which] means she’d rather be divisive against us than against the people who hate us. I suspect Sharon Whitehurst-Payne is a George Stevens Democrat” — referring to the stridently homophobic former City Councilmember, an African-American Democrat with a fairly progressive record on economic issues who had endorsed anti-Queer Republicans over Queer-friendly Democrats and appeared at rallies with them to express opposition to the Queer community.

City attorney candidate Mike Aguirre added that Whitehurst-Payne’s pastor is the strongly anti-Queer Rev. George McKinney, who once said during a civil-rights event at his church that the breakdown in society’s moral values began with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. Aguirre said that Jackson’s pastor, C. Dennis Williams, is more moderate on such issues than McKinney and therefore Jackson would be the preferable candidate.

The debate around endorsing in District “D” centered around Hueso’s ties to Bersin-friendly current board members and the likelihood that as a board member he would support Bersin’s hard line against the teachers’ union and other labor organizations representing district employees. Former club president Doug Case wanted to endorse Hueso based on his 96 percent response to the club’s questionnaire and his willingness to say yes to the question of whether Gay and Lesbian couples should be allowed to marry — Jackson had answered no — but in the end other issues carried the day.

“I don’t find it a sound argument that since we endorsed a candidate with 86 percent [on the questionnaire] we have to endorse one with 96 percent,” said Wildenthal. “The questionnaire does not consider school or labor issues in any depth, and we’ve heard from good sources that this candidate has problems with labor issues. … Also a question is how bad the opponent is. Acle is a Republican, but he seems open and not a George Stevens type.”

Eventually, after a motion to endorse in the District “D” race failed by a vote of 13 to 12 with one abstention, the motion to rate Hueso acceptable passed by 20 to 7. An “acceptable” rating by the club can mean one of three things: either more than one candidate in the race is acceptable and the club doesn’t want to choose one to endorse (as happened in Donna Frye’s first run for the District 6 City Council seat, in which the club rated her and two of her Democratic opponents all acceptable); the club wants to support a non-Democrat but can’t endorse him or her because of the rules of the county party and its own bylaws (as has happened in several school-board races between a moderate Republican and a radical-Right Republican); or, as here, the candidate is basically acceptable but there are concerns about some of his positions.

The club also endorsed Francine Busby, Democratic opponent to Right-wing Republican Congressmember Randy “Duke” Cunningham; Karen Underwood, Democratic opponent to incumbent Republican Assemblymember Mark Wyland; and Jim Stork, an openly Gay Democratic Congressional candidate in Florida. Stork was endorsed because the club is co-sponsoring a local fundraising appearance by him Saturday, June 19, 4:30 p.m., and the club had to endorse him in order to appear on the sponsors’ list for this event. (For more information about this fundraiser please call 1-[877] 786-7504 or e-mail  christopher@storkforcongress.com.)

- e-mail:: mgconlan@earthlink.net

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