Analysis: Sunder’s Quick Rise to First and How She Got There

Madhavi Sunders addresses supporters on election night
Madhavi Sunder addresses supporters on election night

2014 marks an interesting year in which, both in the city council and school board races, a relative unknown newcomer was able to take the city by storm to finish first. In June, Robb Davis finished first over incumbent Councilmember Rochelle Swanson, former School Board member John Munn and current school board member Sheila Allen.

In November, Madhavi Sunder, largely unknown in the community six months ago, won a resounding decision, finishing first by a large margin, winning all but two precincts, and receiving votes on 55.4 percent of the ballots cast.

Interestingly enough, in neither case were observers terribly surprised, at least based on the analyses in the last month. How did that happen? The Vanguard will explore that question.

The simplest answer is really the same as for the Robb Davis campaign before her – she created a large and diverse team and she walked. If she didn’t outwork everyone else in the field, she matched them.

On election night, Ms. Sunder spent a good five to ten minutes going through the contributions of her campaign team. She especially praised the work of Diana Glick, who was in charge of the precinct walking operation – an operation that helped her place first in all but two precincts.

Like Robb Davis’ core team, a lot of the ground workers were involved in their first campaign. She told me, “I am so proud that we have energized a new generation of parents who have not been involved in Davis politics before.”

And, while there was a segment of the politicos who had backed her in the campaign – the Davis City Council, Lois Wolk, Delaine Eastin, Jim Provenza – there was a large group of people at her campaign party that one had never seen before at political events. There were a large number of kids running around carefree.

We went to several other campaign parties, and, while they were well-attended, it was more of the traditional Davis schools group.

The Madhavi Sunder campaign, like the Robb Davis campaign, demonstrates that grassroots politics remain at the core of winning elections in Davis. While certainly much was made about the campaign war chest that Ms. Sunder assembled, it wasn’t a bombardment of slick campaign mailers that won it for her, but rather the sweat and hard work of an energized team.

In order for this team to be effective, Ms. Sunder had to overcome a somewhat significant hurdle – a push-button issue could have undone the consensus she hoped to build.

When Madhavi Sunder announced she was seeking appointment to the vacancy filled by Nancy Peterson’s resignation and, if not appointed, would run for the school board, she was best known in the community for supporting GATE.

She was a member of Davis Excel.  In June 9, 2013, she wrote a letter to the editor defending the Davis GATE Program. For some, she had a reputation of being combative at public meetings.

However, when running for the school board, while not running from her position on GATE/AIM, Ms. Sunder was able to broaden her focus.

In response to the question the Vanguard posed on the topic, she said, “The AIM program is a means that the DJUSD has used since at least the 1980s to serve some of the children who are not being challenged adequately in the regular study. In fact, challenging students at their level is the very essence of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s suggestion that we should promote a growth, not a fixed, mindset.”

She continued, “Placing a child in a classroom where the work comes easily relative to one’s peers only confirms the child’s view that his or her success is natural, confirming a fixed mindset. We want each of the children in our schools to be challenged so that they will ultimately grow.”

“I have participated in the district’s AIM advisory committee meetings. There and in countless conversations with members of the community, I have heard concerns about AIM. There are concerns about the size of the program, stigma placed on children not in the program, the lottery, private testing, and the all-or-nothing option that seems to exist, because our regular-ed programs do not offer consistent or adequate differentiation to meet the needs of AIM learners in their classrooms,” Ms. Sunder said adding, “We ought to have more effective ways of meeting the needs of diverse learners in the regular classroom. We need to keep class sizes small and provide professional development to teachers in differentiated instruction.”

Even within the framework of supporting the GATE/AIM program, Ms. Sunder was looking broader, and that broader focus clearly helped to diffuse, if not eliminate, concerns that many in the community might have otherwise had about her being a single issue candidate.

While I met with a lot of the candidates for school board frequently during the course of the campaign, the thing that struck me about Madhavi Sunder throughout was her willingness to ask questions and to figure out better ways to do things, whether it was campaign tactics, issues that she should explore, or more.

To me, one of the most impressive things is that she toured all of the schools in the district during the course of her campaign. And she didn’t just tour them, she talked with them.

“Some principals told me – they were just grateful, they said I was the closest thing to a board member that had been on their site in a number of years,” she said.

Several people who were quite critical of Ms. Sunder, going in, told me that watching her campaign in action actually alleviated a lot of concerns. They said that she ran a very positive and connected campaign, she listened to a wide variety of different people and preached a message of helping all of the kids.

If she is to govern like she campaigned, she will be very successful. There are a lot of issues that have not been addressed over the last several years. Some of that is due to the district being in survival mode with the budget.   But Madhavi Sunder and really the entire new school board will now get to tackle these issues from a fresh perspective and the community will get to see how Madhavi Sunder, the school board member, operates.

“I think we have great potential here in Davis, nobody ever doubts that. The question is actually can we reach it,” she told me on Tuesday night.

So the year that started with so much tumult will end with a board that has four members who were not on it when Nancy Peterson resigned on that day in March. What that means for our kids remains to be seen.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. SODA

    Add to all you say, I am pleased that a UCD faculty member will be serving on the school board. As I was when Joe was on CC, I think this is a good for our community.

    1. hpierce

      Agreed that it is nice to have someone affiliated with UCD, in concept.  Not sure Joe K is a compelling example tho’… somewhat megalomaniacal as to his idea of power/influence/governance.  Just hope Sunder is more concerned with results than “image”.  Hopefully, “service”, not “politics”

    2. Aggie

      Sunder is a Professor of Law. Krovoza is a fund raiser for one of the many centers on campus.

      Krovoza was a terrible mayor – we would have been much better off with a UCD faculty member like Sunder as mayor. Instead we got a mid-level staffer with an ego problem.

      1. Davis Progressive

        that’s really not very accurate.  he could be heavy-handed, but in terms of his policies, he was outstanding.  without his leadership, the city would be in far worse shape right now fiscally.

        1. Aggie

          To say we would be in far worse fiscal shape without his “leadership” is unsupported by the facts. Compared to what?

          If you want to assign credit for our tepid progress, I would give it to Pinkerton. Krovoza never had command of a voting bloc, or even the respect of his colleagues. His main power was to blow things up and/or politically polarize the council and community. In this respect, he was very similar to Sue Greenwald. I also don’t think it is fair to his victims to excuse his notoriously bad behavior as “heavy-handed.”

          On the biggest long term fiscal issue, Krovoza “led ” the effort to implement the city’s 2010 dispersed innovation strategy as head of the Innovation Park Task Force. Here we are at the end of 2014 looking at a 2017 innovation park at the earliest. In my opinion, the impact of his enormous failure to “lead” on this one issue will haunt the city for a generation.

        2. Davis Progressive

          he did have command of a voting bloc.  he was able to push through early budget reforms on a 3-2 vote.  he was able to get pinkerton in on a 3-2 vote (greenwald and souza voted yes, but it was a 3-2 vote), he was able to push through water, fire, and other reforms on 3-2 votes.

  2. Tia Will


    I agree with you that having a close connection between our schools and the UCD campus is a positive. Also, as with Joe, one of the things that strikes me about Ms. Sunder is her energy and obvious commitment to improving our community. I believe that the sheer force of her personal dedication was a major factor in engaging others in this very strong grassroots campaign.

  3. Davis Progressive

    the most impressive part of madhavi was the energy she brought to the issues she addressed. i really feel like the school board grew stale at the end of the tenure of the big three, they allowed the peterson scandal to escalate, and i think new leadership will help resolve a whole host of issues this board never really prioritized.

    1. Tia Will

      I supported and  voted for Ms. Sunder although I did have some concerns about  her advocacy for one particular educational program just as I had previously had concerns about now Mayor Wolk’s advocacy for Davos Diamonds in part because of the interest of family members in gymnastics. I feel that he has proven hid ability  to take a broader view of the well being of the city and feel that Ms. Sunder has been given a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that she will  keep the needs of all students in sight.

  4. DavisParent

    Most school board candidates seem to have a slightly unpolished character as politicians.  Madhavi however seemed to have more polish.  That and the kind of campaign she ran makes me think that she intends to run for higher office.

  5. iWitness

    I don’t think that the kind of campaign a candidate for school board runs can be any indication of interest in higher office.  It’s challenging enough to be on the school board with reams of documents to study up on for every meeting.  That’s not to deny that school board service can, rarely, be a springboard to other offices, but Madhavi’s passion is public school education, whether K-12 or K-19 (law school).  The “polish” of Madhavi’s campaign was impressive but also incredibly positive and the process of running has changed because of her outreach all over town.  One of her goals was clearly to energize the parents and the children of this district, which she has accomplished remarkably.  Her campaign itself may already have added to the excitement and sense of mission with which the school board members will approach their second full-time jobs.

    1. Gunrocik

      It would be a pretty big cut in pay to go to higher office:

      She made $223,000 last year as a professor.  Plus tenure, great benefits and great retirement system.

      Assembly Members don’t do nearly as well, have little job security and no retirement.  She would take a 2/3 cut in pay.  Here is Mariko’s salary data:




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