In late July, Jason Williams accused rival Slade Mead's campaign of spreading rumors about Williams' homosexuality. The exchange came at the tail end of what was, by all accounts, an amiable debate on KUAT's Arizona Illustrated.
An obviously confused Mead said he had no idea what Williams was talking about, and, according to an article in the Tucson Citizen, the pair seemed close to blows over the incident backstage.
Interestingly, they had very different impressions about how the issue has played out since then.
"I had no clue what the hell he was talking about," Mead said, adding that Williams didn't provide specifics when asked. "Then a week later, we did the other show up here in Phoenix, the Horizon. I was very happy, because he came up, and he apologized. He said that he was just completely off base, bringing it up in the forum he did, especially since he had no--I don't even want to use the word proof, because that sounds almost legal. But he just had no basis with it."
Mead said he talked to the three people on his staff, and no one knew anything. Two of them didn't even know Williams is gay, he said.
According to Williams, supporters had told him that counterparts in the Mead camp were telling people, "We don't want someone like him near our kids." Mead had assured him he was addressing the matter, he said.
But Williams denied ever apologizing to Mead: "That's 100 percent false. I never said any such thing to him in that regard. I told him, you know, that I'm human, and I said enough is enough, and that I was tired of trying to address this behind the scenes and getting no response whatsoever.
"As far as I'm concerned, I have nothing to apologize (for) when I'm the one being unfairly attacked."
Beyond the sexuality issue, there isn't much differentiating the two candidates.
Both Mead and Williams accused the GOP incumbent, Tom Horne, of not being a conscientious advocate for public schools. Both want to revamp the AIMS test. And both want to attract more teachers to Arizona by bumping up pay and streamlining certification processes.
Mead said the top priority for his campaign is making the AIMS test meaningful by adopting a model currently used in Wyoming. He'd like to see the pass-or-fail, all-or-nothing nature of the test eliminated. He'd like it given on computers so students can get their results immediately, and he'd like general subjects broken up into individual skill sets so aptitude can be measured more precisely. (For example, instead of a mixed math section, tests would cover individual math subjects like fractions, geometry, etc.)
Williams focused on three areas of his platform when asked about his priorities: early childhood literacy; decreasing the high-school dropout rate by providing positive role models for students, fighting cuts that impact school guidance counselors and social workers, and providing more diverse course choices for students; and getting communities involved in education.
"As state superintendent, your primary role is to be the head cheerleader for public education," he said. "I should be out there engaging and energizing the community around public education, and getting them excited to support things that need to happen for our children. So we're going to work to create community corps, as well call them, in every single school district across the state."
Williams said it's time to elect someone other than a professional politician as superintendent.
"Being the only candidate who's worked as a public school teacher--spent my entire professional career in public education--I do believe that is an important decision and one that's a common-sense decision," he said. "We've got a lot of challenges in the public school system today, challenges that can and will be fixed. But it's not going to be fixed by the politicians; it's going to take an educator."
However, Mead believes he has a leg up on Williams because of his experience in public policy affecting schools. He noted that he worked his way up from serving on a site council at his daughter's school, to the school district board, to the state Senate.
Williams' "background is two years of teaching in a public school in California, and then working with Teach for America," Mead said. "He has no experience on the public-policy side. I know how these things work, and I know people who can make them work better."