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With the future of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin and his once-vaunted blueprint for educational reform hanging in the balance, the race to replace outgoing school-board member Sue Braun — who caused a furor last year with her e-mailed threat to shoot fellow board members Fran Zimmerman and John deBeck — was expected to be a donnybrook. Five candidates signed up for the open seat. One is Braun's favorite, attorney Katherine Nakamura. Another, former Navy officer Jeff Lee, is a Bersin critic. Both had long ago announced their intention to seek the office and had begun building bases in the district, which extends from Scripps Ranch and Mira Mesa to Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, and the College Area.

To most outside observers, the contest was shaping up as the traditional battle between those, such as Braun, who support Bersin, the controversial ex-U.S. Attorney who has repeatedly clashed with the teachers and their voluble leader Marc Knapp, and those looking for a candidate who would cast a third vote with boardmembers Zimmerman and presumably deBeck to end Bersin's career in education.

But that scenario suddenly changed with the last-minute entry into the race of Johnnie Perkins, a trash-company lobbyist, veteran Republican operative, and ex-aide to city councilman Byron Wear. Though he has no children of his own (his wife is pregnant with their first child) and no experience in school-board politics, Perkins, who jumped into the fray just weeks before the December filing deadline, has emerged as the candidate to beat, rapidly collecting the endorsements of the San Diego Labor Council and the San Diego Education Association, the union representing 8300 of the district's teachers and other employees. The early endorsements have allowed Perkins to list them on his ballot statement, giving him what local political experts say is a substantial leg up in the contest.

The collective embrace of Perkins gained even more momentum last week when Perkins announced that the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, consistently at odds with most of the teachers' union agenda, also endorsed him, and he filed campaign-finance disclosure forms revealing a host of sizable donations from members of the downtown establishment, which has favored Bersin. They include real estate mogul Malin Burnham and wife Roberta; nursing-home owner and one-time city council candidate Karen McElliott; and the William D. Lynch Company of Rancho Santa Fe, whose founder, Bill Lynch, has been one of Bersin's biggest supporters and whose foundation has contracted with the district to provide various educational services.

The abrupt appearance of educational neophyte Perkins, along with the emergence of the politically strange bedfellows who are backing his campaign, is causing consternation and confusion among the teachers' union rank and file. Some see a sophisticated plot by Bersin and his wealthy political backers -- who poured more than $750,000 into the attempt to defeat Zimmerman -- to put another rubber stamp on the board, cementing his position for years to come. Some even claim that teachers' union president Marc Knapp is in on the plot and will be rewarded with a high-paying executive spot at the school district when he leaves his position as head of the union later this year.

Others speculate that city councilman Byron Wear, who is prevented by term limits from running for reelection and is seeking a lucrative job on the new regional airport board, is building his own San Diego version of Tammany Hall by engineering the election of his trusted former aide to the school board, which oversees a multibillion-dollar budget and each year awards millions of dollars' worth of contracts for everything from pencils to high school construction. The board also controls millions of dollars' worth of real estate, which some say is highly coveted by an array of would-be developers, all waiting to pounce once the friendly four-to-one board majority legally required to market the land is elected.

Other key constituencies, like big labor, according to this theory, are being bought off by promises of contracts, choice jobs, and favorable treatment by local government. Perkins's role as lobbyist for San Diego Landfill Systems, a subsidiary of giant Allied Waste Industries, is fueling the suspicions. Others simply credit the political skills of the well-connected Perkins, who reportedly spent months researching the standoff between Bersin and his critics.

Perkins, a 39-year-old native of the city of Cypress in Orange County, says he bears no hidden agenda and denies he has entered into secret deals of any kind with Bersin, Wear, the teachers' union, the chamber of commerce, or anyone else.

"I told both sides clearly that some days you're going to be pleased with me and some days you aren't, but at the end of the day you're going to look back and say, 'He did what was best for the children,' " he said in an interview last week.

Perkins also denies that Wear is a major behind-the-scenes force in the Perkins campaign juggernaut. "That's not true. In fact, Byron and I have had plenty of disagreements over a number of policy issues, even when I worked for him. But I haven't worked for Byron in four years. I've had two other jobs since Byron, and so I talk to him every now and then, but I'm certainly not involved in his political operation, and I'm not involved in his policy operation at all, either.

"He called me when he heard I was interested in the [school board] race, and said, 'Hey, if you consider running, I think that would be great; I would support you.' But I did not call him and seek his advice or ask for his endorsement or anything like that. He had heard, and he had called and said, 'I heard you were thinking about running,' he thought that would be great."

Perkins adds that he is against selling off school-district property to well-connected developers in the way that the San Diego City Council has over the past decade sold city-owned real estate in order to raise money to fund operating costs. "I'm not inclined to support that, and the reason is our school district is going to continue to grow with the amount of population growth in San Diego, and I think it would be irresponsible of any member of the school board to start discussing selling off assets. That's, in my opinion, what got the City of San Diego in so much trouble. They took all those assets they had, and they started selling assets every year to balance their budget."

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