SEATTLE – When Judith Billings (search) left her post as Washington state's school chief eight years ago after being diagnosed with AIDS, her main priority was survival. Now she wants her old job back.
The disease that retired her after two terms is in check thanks to medication, and Billings says she is up to the task of leading the state's school system for the next four years. If elected Nov. 2, she would be the first HIV-positive candidate in the nation to win statewide office, according to her campaign.
Billings is challenging two-term incumbent Terry Bergeson (search), who succeeded her as Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"When I told my doctor I was going to do this, he was delighted," said Billings, 64. "For him, that was proof positive that folks with AIDS can lead normal lives."
Billings announced her diagnosis in 1996, attributing the infection to an early 1980s attempt at artificial insemination. The donor sperm was infected, she said.
"The irony of having contracted HIV because my husband and I wanted our own children is the stuff of movie scripts, not reality," she said at the time. "But it is my reality and there is no denying it."
As medication allowed her to get the disease under control, she began working as an AIDS activist on the state and federal level, and also led the 2000 campaign for a charter-school initiative.
She says her doctor figures work as state schools chief will not be that much more demanding.
The key issue in the race is the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the state's standardized test of reading, writing and math given to students in the 4th, 7th and 10th grades. Beginning with the class of 2008, passing the 10th-grade test will be required for high school graduation.
Billings, who returned to politics because of the issue, contends focus on the tests is producing an unhealthy concentration on test scores, sidelining health and fitness, the arts, civics and social studies.
Resistance to the test has rallied the Washington Education Association behind Billings, even though her opponent was once president of the 76,000-member teachers union.
But the test has backers in the business community and other groups that want to hold public schools accountable for the education they provide. The Boeing Co., Microsoft and several unions have all endorsed Bergeson.
"They're trying to make this election some kind of mandate on a test," Bergeson said. "It isn't about a test — it's about learning. It's about skills for the 21st century."
The race appears to be a dead heat — not that surprising when both women "are seen as incumbents," says Democratic consultant Cathy Allen.
It's not the first time the candidates have clashed.
Bergeson challenged Billings in 1992, losing 52 percent to 48 percent. Bergeson won handily in 1996 and 2000 after Billings retired.