In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education, in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Columnist

What finally did it for Kathy Hoffman was watching the confirmation hearing of Betsy DeVos nearly two years ago.

Hoffman, then a 31-year-old speech therapist in a suburban Phoenix public school district, could not contain her dismay as she saw President Trump’s nominee for education secretary stumble over basic policy questions and suggest that guns should be allowed in schools at which a grizzly bear might appear.

“It was very clear from many of her statements she had never spent any time in a school,” Hoffman recalls.

So she turned to her husband, Justin, and said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy . . .”

Thus began one of the most unlikely stories of an election season that has seen more than its share of them.

A few weeks later, Hoffman announced her candidacy to become Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. Over the next 21 months, she drove so many miles across this vast state that she wore out her 2004 Prius and had to buy a new one.

Everywhere she went, her message was the same: “I kept talking about my students and my colleagues. I kept it very focused on my classroom experience.”

Initially, not even the teachers unions took her seriously. But astonishingly, Hoffman’s Prius-powered campaign succeeded. She upset seasoned politicians in both the primary and general contests, and became the first Democrat in more than a quarter of a century to be elected the state’s education superintendent.

Now, she is preparing to take the reins of a system that ranks third-lowest in the country on spending per pupil. This year, thousands of Arizona teachers walked out of schools to protest low pay and cuts in resources. On Nov. 6, the state’s voters also gave a resounding no to Proposition 305, which would have drastically expanded publicly funded vouchers for private schools, potentially starving public education even more.

Hoffman’s victory speaks to some of the larger themes for which the 2018 midterm elections will be remembered — one of them being the flood of first-time candidates up and down the ballot who ran and won.

With their life experiences and outsider credibility, they were the antidote to cynicism.

Hoffman also ran at a moment of burgeoning activism by frustrated educators across the nation. There were statewide teacher strikes not only in Arizona but also in West Virginia and Oklahoma, and smaller protests in Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado.

The American Federation of Teachers counts Hoffman as one of more than 300  of its members who ran for office — triple what the organization had seen in the past. More than 100 of them won, including more than 80 who will be joining state legislatures across the country, where most public education policy is set. In Congress, 2016’s National Teacher of the Year, Jahana Hayes, will become the first African American woman to represent Connecticut.

The main thing Hoffman had going for her, however, was her own tenacity.

“Most people would have said she wouldn’t have had a chance to win, but she just kept knocking out opponent after opponent,” said Arizona Federation of Teachers President Ralph Quintana, who noted that neither his organization nor the Arizona Education Association endorsed Hoffman in the Democratic primary.

It was easy to understand the skepticism, given how outmatched she seemed. Her primary opponent, David Schapira, was a former minority leader of the state Senate. Hoffman won by four percentage points.

In the general election, Hoffman was up against Frank Riggs, a charter-school-movement leader who had also been a three-term congressman in California. Riggs called Hoffman “a very nice young person” but shrugged her off as “inexperienced and extreme.”

When Hoffman went to bed on election night, she was 11,000 votes behind. By the time she woke up, the gap had narrowed to 8,000.

Over the next few days, with most attention riveted on the counting of ballots in Arizona’s photo-finish U.S. Senate race, Hoffman obsessively refreshed the secretary of state’s website, watching her own progress as she steadily gained and eventually overtook Riggs by more than two percentage points. She also, for the first time in months, managed to make it to a yoga class.

Bigger challenges await. The legislature and governorship, which hold the real power over education in the state, remain in GOP hands.

“She can’t control the one thing we really need, which is more funds,” Quintana said, “but we have someone in the capital advocating for our needs.”

And with the votes of more than 1.1 million Arizonans to back her up, the political establishment would do well to listen to what Hoffman has to say.