OK, students, listen up. For today's political science class, we're going to break up into teams to study the 16th Assembly District race.

If you favor labor unions, high-speed rail and BART workers' right to strike, step to the left side of the room and grab a button that says, "Tim Sbranti is my guy." If you think public pensions are out of control, teachers should be graded and seniority rules revised, go to the right side of the room and wave "I like Catharine Baker" pennants.

Gee, you two groups are really far apart. That's just like the candidates.

Democrat Sbranti and Republican Baker squared off for the umpteenth time Tuesday at the weekly meeting of the Sunrise Rotary Club of Walnut Creek. Only two dozen people attended, but it hardly mattered. These two would enjoy disagreeing in an empty room.

About the only thing they have in common is that they live in Dublin, where Sbranti is in his sixth year as mayor. Their clashes are largely reflections of their backgrounds.

Sbranti, a teacher and former head of the California Teachers Association's political action committee, balks at teacher reforms. Baker, a mother of two school-aged children, seeks systemic change in public education and wants teachers held more accountable.

Sbranti, an avid union member, sees minor adjustments and increased employee contributions as a solution for underfunded retirement benefits. Baker, a lawyer who works with small businesses, wants public pension plans stripped down and rebuilt.



Sbranti hopes teacher favorite Tom Torlakson is re-elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Baker plans to vote for reform-minded Marshall Tuck.

It was great fun for those in the audience to hear how often the candidates disagreed.

They differed on the success of Proposition 30 (Sbranti campaigned for it; Baker said it delivered less money to schools than promised.) They differed on education funding (Sbranti wants more of it; Baker wants it spent more wisely.) They differed on how quickly debt-ridden pensions can be fixed (Sbranti says it will take time; Baker wants action now.)

The most heated difference came when Baker warned of special interests' influence -- and the pledges required of candidates seeking endorsements and funding. She asked Sbranti to make public the promises he made to supporters such as state employees and teachers unions. He declined.

"This whole issue of transparency is such a red herring," he said. "We've done over a dozen public debates. There isn't anybody who doesn't know where we stand.

"I think a lot of this is to deflect attention from the fact that Ms. Baker has one single donor -- an out-of-town billionaire -- that has spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then I'm the one that gets attacked."

Ah, the ideal way to end a cordial discussion between old friends.

The billionaire is Charles Munger, whose political action group Spirit of Democracy opposes most Democrats, Sbranti included. Baker said Munger gave her only $8,200 -- the maximum -- in direct contributions, and she's refused to make pledges to his or any other group, including the conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

She's doing things her way. And she thinks she can win. I'm guessing Sbranti disagrees.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.