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December 3, 2012

HAYDEN: ‘Getting Ritzed’ is the new catchphrase at Statehouse

School reformers still seething over Bennett rejection

INDIANAPOLIS – There’s a new phrase starting to emerge in the lexicon of the Indiana Statehouse: “Getting Ritzed.”

It refers to the stunning Nov. 6 victory of political newcomer Glenda Ritz over her giant of an opponent, Tony Bennett, in the race for superintendent of public instruction.

More so, it refers to the kind of campaign that rocketed Ritz past Bennett to win 1.3 million Hoosier votes.

Employing a mastery of social media that tapped into widening skepticism about the K-12 education overhaul that Bennett championed, the Ritz campaign pulled off the seemingly impossible: It beat the Republican incumbent in a Republican-loving state and did it with a fraction of the money, TV airtime, and powerful partisan pull that Bennett enjoyed. (And, often noted since, it managed to get more votes for Ritz than Gov.-elect Mike Pence.)

Getting Ritzed is the 21st century version of the biblical tale of David and Goliath. (David Galvin, the engineer of Ritz’s social media campaign, tapped into that analogy in a fascinating article he wrote for the Nov. 15 issue of Howey Politics Indiana.)

If you remember the story from Sunday school, you’ll recall little David picked up that slingshot because he figured out his coat of mail, brass helmet, and that sword girded to his side weren’t going to get him to where he needed.

“I cannot go in these,” David said, as he cast aside the conventional battle plan and scooped up a handful of rocks, “for I am unused to it.”

Hard not to think of that tale when listening to Republicans who are unused to losing.

As first reported by Maureen Groppe of the Indianapolis Star, outgoing Gov. Mitch Daniels – the true champion of the education reforms that the teachers’ union loathe – is still seething about Bennett’s loss. Speaking at a Washington, D.C., meeting of the Foundation for Excellence in Education last week, Daniels claimed public school teachers used illegal and improper methods to oust Bennett.

He accused teachers of sending out anti-Bennett emails on school time and trashing Bennett during parent-teacher conferences. “Despite the great progress that’s been made in states like ours, the forces of reaction never quit,” Daniels said. “The last twitch of the dinosaur’s tail can still kill you, and that’s what happened.”

That’s strong stuff, assigning a dinosaur mentality to 1.3 million voters who picked Ritz over Bennett.

It also overlooks the possibility those votes were neither a massive rejection of reforms that have brought things like more teacher accountability and more parental choice, nor the collective act of tiny-brained creatures controlled by disgruntled teachers.

In emails I continue to receive, weeks after I wrote a column asking for Republicans to tell me why they voted for the Democrat Ritz, it seems much more complex and nuanced than that.

The changes brought during the Bennett-Daniels era came at schools, students, parents and communities in a fast-and-furious way, and they didn’t always seem to make sense to the end-users.

Teacher accountability sounds great, for example, but is more high-stakes testing for students and a complicated A-to-F grading system for schools among the best ways to accomplish that?

To mix up the metaphor, Ritz remains a David-like character as she readies herself to walk into the lions’ den that awaits her in the GOP-controlled Statehouse. Too early to know if she’ll get torn to shreds or emerge with hard-earned respect.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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