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The privatizers’ ideal candidate for California State Superintendent, Marshall Tuck, recently suffered a serious blow to his credibility when he announced he was returning a contribution from a mysterious anti-gay zealot but keeping over $61,000 from a PAC. The situation revealed a campaign scrambling to maintain a narrative that appeals to California’s mostly progressive voters when the reality is much darker.

marshall tuck

The race for this officially nonpartisan office pits two Democrats who are miles apart on education policy, underscoring how divisive the charter lobby’s influence is becoming for California’s governing party.

Tuck’s opponent Tony Thurmond is a social worker, former school board member, and current State Assemblymember. He has been endorsed by Senator Kamala Harris; U.S. Congressional Representatives Barbara Lee, Eric Swalwell, and Karen Bass; and the teachers’ union.

Tuck, on the other hand, has the same pro-privatizing platform that voters rejected when he was defeated for the position four years ago, and it’s the same education platform of Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and Vice President Mike Pence: To deregulate public education, to outsource school services, to make it harder for teachers to gain tenure, and to expand the market of “school choice.”

Tuck’s bid to take over California public schools is being bankrolled by familiar names in the anti-public education Billionaire Boys Club, as former Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, calls them. Looked at through another lens, their support can be politically inconvenient: Doris Fisher (whose Gap retail company has faced numerous child labor scandals), Eli Broad (former top investor at AIG, and whose non-accredited Broad Academy trains privatizing “education leaders”), Alice Walton (heir to the anti-labor Walmart fortune), Reed Hastings (Silicon Valley billionaire who has tried for years to take away the right of local voters to elect their own school boards, and who recently gave disgraced L.A. School Board member Ref Rodriguez $75,000 for his legal defense fund for felony campaign finance charges).

But these are not the supporters who caused Tuck the recent trouble.

Tuck set himself up for a fall last August, when he pledged “...our campaign has not accepted—and will not accept—contributions from companies or PACs.”

However, on January 11, Tuck’s campaign reported receiving $23,725 and $37,430 from a PAC called Govern for California, chaired by George Penner, husband of Walmart heir Carrie Walton Penner, as well as $5000 from Fieldstead & Co.

Contributions from PACs are legally limited to $7300, far below the sum Tuck received from Govern for California.

Thurmond filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission and called Tuck out for reneging on his promise. “Tuck is...claiming to take clean money while in fact being funded by PACs and pro-privatizing billionaires.”

His campaign told Politico the PAC was “only acting as an intermediary,” which seems to deny the definition of a PAC as an aggregator of political contributions.

“Our campaign has only taken money from individuals—we're not taking money from PACs or corporations…’” Tuck’s campaign said.

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The campaign filed amended reports, unpacking the PAC to list individuals, and revealing that the Fieldstead & Co. contribution was actually from a person, Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr.

Ahmanson’s name set off alarm bells with LGBTQ groups such as Equality California because of his association with a dark chapter in California politics.

In 2008, when an idealistic grassroots movement swept the country electing Barack Obama the first black President, the California ballot included Proposition 8, a measure to ban gay marriage. The Prop 8 campaign succeeded following massive funding from the religious right.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court made the right to same sex marriage the law of the land, Ahmanson contributed $1.4 million to Prop 8.

Money flooded into California from anti-gay groups across the land. Michigan philanthropist Elsa Prince Broekhuizen was another major contributor to California’s Prop 8, giving $450,000. Readers will be more familiar with Broekhuizen’s adult children: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Blackwater mercenary founder Erik Prince.

An anti-gay crusade is foundational to their philanthropic activism. Ahmanson once told the Orange County Register, “My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”

Ahmanson may have adopted his religious and political agenda as a close follower and funder of the now deceased “Rousas John Rushdoony, a radical evangelical theologian who advocated placing the United States under the control of a Christian theocracy that would mandate the stoning to death of homosexuals.”

It would not be a stretch to say that Ahmanson and members of the Prince and DeVos families are part of a Dominionist kabal, using extreme wealth to reorient American government toward extremist Christian doctrine. They regularly attend The Gathering, a “shadowy, powerful network” of hard-right Christian funders, according to an investigation published in the Daily Beast.

“The Gathering is as close to a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy’ as you’re likely to find,” Jay Michaelson reported. Attendees are the “wealthiest conservative to hard-right evangelical philanthropists in America, and have led the campaigns to privatize public schools, redefine ‘religious liberty,’ fight same-sex marriage, [and] fight evolution…” he wrote. It was at The Gathering where Betsy DeVos said she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom” through public schools. It was there that she and her husband said that school choice was a way to reverse the history of public schools displacing the Church as the center of communities.

DeVos and Ahmanson are each doing their part as religious warriors in the crusade. With the help of a compliant Congress, DeVos is exploding the barrier that historically separated American public education from religion. She has promoted school vouchers to pay for religious schools, withdrawn Obama Administration guidance that protected transgender students, and is trying to give churches the chance to reclaim their place at the center of communities by expanding school choice.

Ahmanson is doing his part by contributing to candidates like Marshall Tuck who will make this extreme agenda seem palatable even to California progressives. Tuck’s maneuvering to hide Ahmanson’s name was critical to the effort.


Karen Wolfe

An edited version of this appeared in The Progressive.