By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"I don’t dismiss or disbelieve that the mayor cares about kids," said Yolie Flores Aguilar, who is running a long-shot campaign in the 5th District against David Tokofsky, the only incumbent Riordan has endorsed. "Mayor Riordan has stood out in front on the issue of children, and I commend him for that. But I don’t think public education should ever be for sale. How he has invested in one race and tipped the scale so much — that to me is like buying a candidate. I don’t think this was the right way, or the most honest way."
The obvious yardstick to measure Riordan’s impact is to follow the money. As of April 6, school-board candidates had reported some $2.8 million in contributions, an astonishing amount for contests once funded more along the lines of a PTA bake sale. Just two years ago, school-board member Vickie Castro did not even have to face an opponent. Winning a contested race generally cost from $80,000 to $175,000. This time around, Caprice Young is expected to spend upwards of $600,000. Riordan candidates will outspend opponents by margins of 2 to 1, or even 3 to 1.
It’s not that the targeted incumbents can’t raise money; they’re raising more than ever. It’s just that Riordan has trumped their efforts, entirely reversing the conventional wisdom that incumbents get the cash.
Much of the Riordan aid has come through Coalition for Kids, a political-action committee established by the mayor. On February 25, Riordan’s wife, Nancy Daly, reported spending more than $20,000 to host a fund-raiser at the Riordans’ Brentwood home. The $1,000-a-plate dinner raised more than $200,000.
On the other end of the pipeline, South Bay candidate Mike Lansing, for example, had received a staggering $441,311 in assistance from the coalition by March 30, money used to pay for mailers, surveys, a phone-bank operation and something unheard of in past school-board campaigns: television advertising. Lansing, who is trying to unseat incumbent George Kiriyama, received a comparatively modest $39,000 from other sources, and much of that was from Riordan-inspired contributors who chose to give directly to Lansing rather than to the coalition. The picture is almost exactly the same for Caprice Young, who is challenging incumbent Horton. Expect all these numbers to rise markedly by Election Day.
"Riordan has definitely upped the ante, there’s no doubt about it," said Tokofsky campaign consultant Sue Burnside. "And when you take the Riordan money away from Lansing and Young, they’re not viable. It doesn’t mean they’re not viable as school-board members. It just means they couldn’t run a campaign."
Beyond that, the mayor’s team has virtually taken over the campaigns of newcomers Young and Lansing; less control is exerted over Hayes and Tokofsky, who are more experienced in electoral wars.
Veteran district observers can only shake their heads in dismay. "I think we’ve reached a zenith in the politicization of this school district," said Eli Brent, head of the district’s administrators union. "It almost smacks of the old Kelly or Daley machines. It’s like we’re having a love affair with that type of ward politics."
One senior district official couldn’t resist giving in to cynicism. "I don’t know that the mayor’s candidates will be any different than the ones we have now," he said, "except they will be indebted to the mayor. If we talk about changing the nature of the school board, this won’t do it." The administrator declined to give his name; after all, the mayor’s slate may win.
The harshest reaction to Riordan’s machinations comes from the 1st District, where two-term incumbent Barbara Bou-dreaux, a retired elementary school principal, is opposing civil rights activist Genethia Hayes to represent South-Central Los Angeles. Boudreaux has been joined by wealthy black developer and activist Danny Bakewell, among others, in characterizing Riordan’s involvement as racist "plantation politics" pitting one African-American woman against another.
This view of Riordan was articulated in an October article in The Sentinel, a weekly that mainly serves the city’s black community. "Master has named the choice ‘he’ sees fit to back," wrote syndicated columnist A. Asadullah Samad. "The other highly offensive part of this little package is that a highly sophisticated player in the community arena [Hayes] has allowed herself to be played into this game of divide and conquer." To Samad (who has since joined the Boudreaux campaign), "the mayor is seeking to scapegoat certain board members for representing the interest of their constituencies that conflict with his (or his constituency’s interest) so he’s looking to buy them out of office. How so? By funding candidates against them. You offer a Negro money, and they will go against the interest of the community."
The reasoning sounds anachronistic in a district where most of the students — the proper focus of district efforts — are Latino. But elderly black voters remain the largest voting bloc, and Samad’s conjecture resonates strongly among residents who remember legal segregation, and have yet to see their neighborhoods escape poverty and crime.
The Uncle Tom mantle, however, hardly fits the independent-minded Hayes, who planned her run against Boudreaux before Riordan decided to support her. Hayes, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — a veteran civil rights watchdog — has a long history of community and school involvement. But nothing is going to stop Bou-dreaux, scrambling to overcome the Riordan money factor, from playing the race card against Hayes. The question is whether Riordan’s money will make up for the damage-by-association.