Pearl Quiñones (right) with Assemblymember Lori Saldaña
“In Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
Ah, the sounds of spring!
Every year, birds and frogs chirp and burp their respective mating songs. In politics—particularly during election years—it's the thump of heavy lumber that seems to drown out the sweet warbles of productive political discourse.
Spin Cycle—rarely surprised by the means used to justify the ends of election-day supremacy—did raise an eyebrow when it read in a recent edition of the weekly La Prensa San Diego newspaper that Pearl Quiñones, a Sweetwater Union High School District board member who's running to replace termed-out 79th District state Assemblymember Mary Salas, had been laid off after 19 and a half years of employment as a dropout-prevention specialist in the preschool-through-eight-grade San Ysidro School District.
Now, it's old news that school districts statewide are facing bone-cutting budget decisions, but La Prensa noted an intriguing twist.
“Apparently the board member leading the charge to lay-off Quiñones,” the paper reported on March 12, “was Raquel Beltran who also works for Ben Hueso who is running for [A]ssembly against Quiñones.”
The La Prensa item concluded: “Politics being played here? You decide.”
Spin Cycle always likes a challenge, so into the story we delved.
First, no one by the name Raquel Beltran works for San Diego Council President Ben Hueso, who is indeed running against Quiñones and former Santee mayor Jack Doyle (now a Coronado resident) in the Democratic primary to succeed Salas, now a state Senate candidate.
A week later, La Prensa graciously printed a correction stating that the school board member was actually Raquel Marquez Madden, which gets them closer to the truth.
In fact, she is Raquel Marquez-Maden (pronounced MAY-den), and she is indeed a full-time employee of President Hueso, serving as a senior policy adviser, according to Hueso's council website, as well as an elected school board member in San Ysidro.
And, indeed, Marquez-Maden was on the majority side of a narrow 3-2 vote two weeks ago that eliminated for next year the $202,000 dropout-prevention program that had survived earlier budget-cut threats and kept Quiñones employed.
Listening to Quiñones tell it, it's clear there's little love lost between the two political camps—and, frankly, why should there be? Sometimes politics, like war, is hell.
But a candidate falling under the budget ax during a rough-and-tumble Assembly race? Well, let's just say that's different!
“This has been an unbelievable race,” Quiñones told Spin Cycle this week. “I've been in three or four campaign races, and they've been horrible experiences, all of them. But this one so far has just been the dirtiest, back-stabbing race yet.”
Local political-ethics experts were hesitant to opine publicly on this topic and whether the Hueso aide should have recused herself from voting on budget cuts that affected the livelihood of a Hueso political opponent, but others had opinions.
Termed-out state Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, a Quiñones supporter, said that such a scenario—if it were to crop up with an employee in her office—would “raise a concern” and likely a request that the employee avoid participating in such a vote.
“It just seems to me that it creates an uneven playing field,” Saldaña said. “You always want to make sure that decisions like these avoid the appearance of a political component.”
Marquez-Maden bristled at the suggestion of political gamesmanship to favor her aspiring boss.
“The budget cuts had nothing to do with politics,” she told Spin Cycle. “We had to cut $5 million of a $40-million budget for the coming year, and that was extremely hard. The staff proposed to us a package, and we had to vote it up or down.
“Let me assure you I'm very independent when it comes to my duties as a [school] board member. I separate my work and board position very, very, very well. That's why I'm not in charge of any policy areas in San Ysidro” for Hueso.
Marquez-Maden even noted that another board member who supports Quiñones in the Assembly race also voted to eliminate the positions. That board member, Jean Romero (who couldn't be reached for comment) “would surely not have voted for a package if it were designed to victimize her long-time friend and ally,” Marquez-Maden argued.
Quiñones remains undeterred. “I'm going to be fine, because I'm going to win this race,” she said, acknowledging that she probably will keep her job through the end of the year, when she becomes eligible for full retirement benefits.
The sad thing, she added, is that her position as dropout-prevention specialist at Smythe Elementary School and two other similar posts at another district elementary school and a middle school had been funded specifically for decades by state grants under the Dropout Prevention and Recovery Act of 1985.
But with school budgets dwindling, that law was changed in recent years to allow broader discretion locally in the use of those funds, which are intended to keep children in school.
San Ysidro School District Superintendent Manuel H. Paul said he made the budget-cut recommendations because “I've got to do what I've got to do to balance a budget. This has nothing to do with any politics. It has to do with what's best for students.”
Still, Quiñones questions Marquez-Maden's participation. “It's a big conflict because Raquel works for Ben,” she insisted. “I'm an elected official. She's an elected official. And if a vote like that ever came to my board, I would definitely recuse myself.”
She said she did not attend the school board meeting at which her position was eliminated. “I figured it would be futile for me to go,” she explained, before adding with a chuckle, “I do know my door hangers were being waved in the crowd.”
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