Hostile campaign for N.D. school superintendentFor Max Laird, campaigning against incumbent state school superintendent Wayne Sanstead has been like taking on a ghost. The two men have debated once, and Laird said he rarely sees Sanstead on the road.
By: By Dale Wetzel, The Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BISMARCK — For Max Laird, campaigning against incumbent state school superintendent Wayne Sanstead has been like taking on a ghost. The two men have debated once, and Laird said he rarely sees Sanstead on the road.
“He doesn’t campaign in the conventional sense. He figures that he doesn’t have to,” Laird said of Sanstead, a former Minot teacher, state legislator and lieutenant governor who is seeking his seventh term as North Dakota’s superintendent of public instruction.
For Sanstead, the race is unusual for a different reason. The 73-year-old incumbent has faced a barrage of television commercials, financed mostly by Laird himself, that paint him as ineffectual and out of touch with the public school classroom.
Laird has put $100,000 of personal funds in his campaign and used the money to buy television and radio ads, billboard space and a Volkswagen Bug that has become a campaign symbol. Two of Laird’s billboards, which show Laird with his right arm playfully draped over the car, are near Sanstead’s Bismarck home.
Sanstead angrily rebuts the notion that he is aloof from education trends, saying he has always made a point of visiting classrooms and talking to teachers and administrators. Laird’s campaign has “focused on ageism, not on my ability to do the job,” Sanstead said.
“This is the first time I’ve had that kind of financial power put into place against me,” Sanstead said. “He is running a negative media campaign of the first order ... I thought this would be on a much higher level.”
Laird, 57, teaches science at a Grand Forks alternative high school, which helps students who have previously dropped out of school. He lives in the rural Grand Forks County community of Thompson.
He has been critical of what he believes is Sanstead’s passivity as head of the Department of Public Instruction.
Sanstead has not been aggressive in seeking a number of education changes, including improved student performance monitoring, education finance reform, higher teacher pay and the availability of advanced instruction in rural areas, Laird said.
Republican Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the Commission on Education Improvement, which Gov. John Hoeven appointed in January 2006, have stepped into the policy vacuum, Laird said. Sanstead is a member of the commission, but Laird, who has attended commission meetings, said it is apparent Dalrymple is its guiding force.
“Jack Dalrymple is so far downstream from Wayne right now, you can’t even imagine,” Laird said.
Sanstead said he has been active in helping to shape the commission’s recommendations to the North Dakota Legislature, which are expected to include new graduation standards and increased support for technical education, teacher training, student tutoring and preschools.
Sanstead said he will press for an increased share of state spending on school instruction and teacher compensation. And Laird’s campaign portrayal of him as a washed-up officeholder doesn’t mesh with what North Dakotans know about him, the incumbent said.
“Clearly, I’m not that way, and people know that. They know that I’m energetic and active and involved,” Sanstead said. “They’re not looking at it as a matter of age. They know I have a lot of experience in putting forward the interests of education.”
Laird, who is a former president of the North Dakota Education Association, is running his second statewide campaign for superintendent of public instruction.
In 2004, he was eliminated in the June primary when he finished behind Sanstead and Keith Jacobson, a New Salem school superintendent who had Republican backing in the race.
Sanstead and Laird are both Democrats. No Republican-supported candidate ran this year for superintendent, which is listed on North Dakota’s nonpartisan ballot.
After the North Dakota Republican state convention did not bring forth a candidate for DPI, Laird seized the opportunity. He was guaranteed a general election contest against Sanstead when the two men turned out to be the only candidates for the job.
Laird has held a number of news conferences to outline his campaign agenda, and has posted a running commentary on his blog, “A Teacher’s Take.” Sanstead’s campaign has been more low-key, as have his previous races.
“I have been doing my usual thing, trying to keep the office running,” Sanstead said in an interview.
Never a prolific fundraiser, Sanstead has raised just over $18,000 for his re-election. “I didn’t expect all of the heavy money,” he said. If he had anticipated Laird’s effort, “I suspect I would have spent more time” raising funds, Sanstead said.
Laird said the expenditures have been needed to overcome Sanstead’s advantages as a longtime incumbent, and what he said were Sanstead’s unwillingness to debate him on issues.
“In any normal statewide campaign, when you’re running against someone, you have your proposal and the other guy’s proposal, your records, and your plans for the future,” Laird said. “In this case, my opponent has not elucidated or defended his record ... As far as I can see, there hasn’t been a campaign. Your opponent is just a name.”