News & Views from 465 California Street

Bill Honig

Clint Reilly

In January 1982, I owned a political consulting company headquartered in San Francisco. I was in the process of opening new offices in a classic, turn-of-the-century Edwardian near downtown when my phone rang one morning. It was Bill Honig, Superintendent of the Reed Union School District in Marin County. Reed Union had 500 students in the entire district. Centered in the high income city of Tiburon, Reed Union was one of the wealthiest and smallest school districts in California. I knew Bill Honig was already a declared candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. A native San Franciscan whose father had founded a highly respected ad agency, Bill Honig was attempting the impossible – the Superintendent of possibly California’s tiniest school district wanted to be elected Superintendent of California’s schools – the largest public school system in America.

Honig was running an insurgent, reform campaign to unseat incumbent Wilson Riles, a popular State Superintendent running for his third term. He hired me to manage his campaign. We had less than 6 months to introduce Bill Honig to California and to pound home his succinct but effective message: “homework, discipline, required courses. It worked when he was a young student and it will work for California students in the 1980’s.”

With less than $700,000 to campaign in the largest state in the Union we did not have enough money to win by purchasing paid television commercials alone. Honig needed to rely on newspapers and television news to communicate with voters. Huddling with Honig one day in my office, I explained that there were 55 daily newspapers with circulation ranging from 15,000 in Ukiah in the north end of the State to more than one million in Los Angeles County in Southern California. I wanted Bill Honig to meet personally with the editorial board of every newspaper in California and sound the alarm for his message of reform. Honig criss-crossed the state tirelessly and managed to visit each newspaper and spend anywhere from an hour to two hours articulating his message. Three weeks before the June election, Honig had only 3% in California’s well known and respected Field Poll. In this survey of California voters, incumbent Wilson Riles exceeded 50%, Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Ferraro was second with 25%. As the final days of the election wound down, California newspapers began to make their endorsements in the race for State Schools chief. Their Editorial Boards ranged from powerful owners like Dean Lesher at The Contra Costa Times or Richard Theriot of the San Francisco Chronicle to a single publisher at the smallest papers to full fledged staffs led by editorial page editors at the San Jose Mercury News or Los Angeles Times. By Election Day 90% of California newspapers had publicly endorsed the little-known underdog, Bill Honig for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In an election where voters were dissatisfied with schools but knew little about Honig, the newspaper endorsements provided the critical independent validation Honig needed to force Wilson Riles into a November runoff.

In November, Honig easily beat Riles by 10% and became head of America’s largest school system, with over 4 million students. Without a powerful message for change, Honig would not have won. But without the State’s most powerful newspaper editorial boards independently validating Honig’s call for change, Honig would never have been elected.

Bill Honig’s election took place 25 years ago this June. He was twice reelected and forced from office by an embarrassing scandal ten years later. But the lessons of the power of newspapers in local, state and federal elections still endure today.

In a public square increasingly dominated by paid partisan ads at election time, voters desire objective sources of information. Newspaper endorsements cut through the confusing array of promises and attacks and offer a seemingly objective evaluation based on the public interest.

Comments (2)

  • Honig wrote a book called “Teaching Our Children to Read”. From Amazon’s book review:
    “Bill Honig has written a balanced, practical, and readable summary of research on reading that should be of enormous help to educators, policymakers, and anyone else concerned with children. Teaching Our Children to Read supports neither pure forms of whole language nor old-fashioned phonics, but makes a compelling case for systematic teaching of phonics in the context of meaningful text. The book then spells out the programmatic and practical consequences of the research on reading.It is an oustanding contribution to the debate in California and in the nation on optimal teaching strategies for reading.”- Robert Slavin, Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk Johns Hopkins University

    Posted by: Sylvia Valdes | January 30th, 2008 at 12:14 pm

  • The link to the book review page on Amazon:

    Posted by: Sylvia V. | January 30th, 2008 at 12:17 pm

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