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Q&A with state schools superintendent and former gubernatorial candidate Jack O'Connell

State schools superintendent Jack O’Connell, who had explored a run for governor but dropped the idea this month, jokes that maybe he’ll be free to manage his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers if Joe Torre steps down after next season.

“We might see a job swap,” he quips.

O’Connell, who makes his home in San Luis Obispo, is a former high school teacher who has served for nearly three decades as an elected official. He started as a Democrat assemblyman in 1982 in Santa Barbara, moving to the Senate in 1994, and assuming the schools post in 2002. He will be termed out in 14 months.

The married father of one grown daughter said he is proud of helping to reduce class sizes, impose a high school exit exam, restrict offshore oil drilling, lower the voter threshold for school bonds to 55 percent, and ban unleashed dogs from the open cargo area of pickups.

O’Connell, who was supported by only 2 percent of the respondents and trailed Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom by wide margins in a gubernatorial Field Poll this month, discussed his reasons for not seeking the state’s highest office and said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, Doree, who survived brain cancer surgery in 2006:

Q: Why drop the idea of a gubernatorial run?

A: “The stars were not in proper alignment ... Certainly, the (fundraising) was daunting. An opportunity to spend more time at home was part of it. Less time traveling with my duffel bag, which I have to do because I take the small airplanes and it fits in the overhead.”

Q: Any regrets about the decision?

A: “The needle had been moving for quite some time in that direction. It just didn’t feel right, running, so I’m very comfortable with my decision ... It’s time to turn the page.”

Q: Are you truly going to retire?

A: “No. No plans, but I’m young and in great health. (It’s been written) that I want to do something in education, and that’s accurate. Maybe even get closer to the students. The downside of being in Sacramento is that you don’t develop the relationship or rapport with students. I kind of miss that. I’m a teacher.”

Q: Will you go back into classroom teaching?

A: “No definitive plans. Don’t know. It’s one decision at a time.”

Q: Which gubernatorial candidate will you endorse?

A: “Right now, no one. We’ll see how the issues evolve and the debate proceeds.”

Q: What will you do with the $600,000 in your campaign coffers?

A: “Haven’t given it any thought.”

Q: Is it true that Willie Brown, former Assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor, urged you to run for lieutenant governor instead?

A: “(Yes, but) I just didn’t have the passion for that position.”

Q: Any advice for the next governor?

A: “Education is the key issue. Education is the key economic issue, it’s the key issue to quality of life in California, and it really is a great equalizer for our students. Our big issue has been on working to close the achievement gap – and a governor can really help us with that.”

Q: Why didn’t you gain more traction in gubernatorial polling?

A: “I’m not sure that people are really focused even yet. I still think it’s a little early. And I was vacillating back and forth on whether or not to run. I was doing more behind-the-scenes and trying to gauge support.”

Q: Was it hard to pull the plug?

A: “Yeah, it was a difficult decision, but the right decision for me personally. Ultimately, it comes down to a personal decision.”

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