DEMOCRAT Eddie Basha, a supermarket magnate who is running for governor of Arizona, likes to trumpet the need to improve the state's public schools.
By doing so, the self-styled ``chubby grocer'' and ``bleeding-heart capitalist'' has made education a central issue in the campaign - and emerged as a surprisingly tough opponent to incumbent Gov. Fife Symington (R).
Mr. Basha, a political novice who stunned Arizona's political establishment by defeating two former Phoenix mayors to capture the Democratic nomination, holds a 10-point lead over Mr. Symington in the polls. This comes despite Arizona's growing economy, several years of tax cuts instituted by Symington, and a majority GOP electorate.
Mr. Basha's Cinderella story, should it continue, would represent a bright spot for the Democrats in a year when they may not have many. Symington's difficulties, analysts say, stem not only from the rising juvenile crime rate, but from a frustration with low-wage, dead-end jobs. ``When people are employed full time but they're still having trouble making ends meet, that says something about the economy,'' says University of Arizona political scientist and former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy.
Basha believes he has the answer to both low-wage jobs and juvenile crime. ``You cannot disentangle crime, violence, and poverty from education,'' he says. Basha, who spent 13 years on the Chandler school board, eight years on the state Board of Education, and now serves on the Board of Regents, has issued a plan calling for Arizona schools to become year-round learning and resource centers for both children and adults. He advocates fully funded preschool programs, alternative schools for troubled children, expansion of community colleges, and vocational training for students who don't attend college.
Moreover, Basha promises to accomplish all these reforms without raising taxes. He claims he can find money by shifting priorities, consolidating state services, and cutting bureaucracy.
Symington says it can't be done. ``He is either going to have to abandon his dreams his first day in office or push for the biggest tax increase in Arizona history,'' Symington says.
Symington has his own plan for schools, although education advocates are skeptical. They say the governor and the legislature denied more than $200 million in inflation-funding to schools during his first three years in office and that he refused to support reforms advocated by a task force he convened.
``He's not really interested in reform unless it includes vouchers for private and religious schools,'' says Kay Lybeck, head of the Arizona Education Association, a union that endorsed Basha.
EARLIER this year, the Republican-dominated legislature came within a few votes of passing a program that would give state grants to parents wishing to send their children to private or parochial schools.
Symington vows, if elected to a second term, to keep pushing for vouchers. Basha says he is unalterably opposed to vouchers, which he calls ``the first step in the dismantling of public education in this country.''
Symington rejects Basha's view that the educational system can serve as a surrogate for weakened families. ``Schools are not places for social welfare distribution,'' he says. Symington touts more discipline in the classroom, tougher law enforcement, and more jails as the answer to youth crime.
In a state as conservative as Arizona, Symington's message would seem to have more appeal than Basha's. But the fact that Basha is doing as well as he is may mean voters here are open to the idea that, in the long run, better schools will reduce crime. First, however, Basha must convince Arizonans that they won't have to pay extra to give his ideas a try.