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
A real face-off with the union, however, was inevitable. After all, the central original goal of the Riordan campaign initiative was to diminish union influence in board elections. As far back as mid-1997, Riordan and his allies met with top district administrators to float the idea of a corporate-backed committee organized to oppose teachers-union candidates, according to participants in these meetings.
Yet in 1999 direct opposition to the union never became a campaign issue, because Riordan had a better one to run with: the Belmont Learning Complex, the nation’s most expensive high school construction project, which sits half-finished atop a shallow oil field. That year, two of the targeted incumbents were vulnerable because they were adamant Belmont-project supporters. And Belmont was vigorously opposed by the lone incumbent Riordan endorsed. The fourth race featured an incumbent, George Kiriyama, who had generally opposed Belmont, but had little visibility on the subject. He got tarred with Belmont anyway and lost. Final score: Riordan 4, Opponents 0 -- assist to Belmont.
Though the future of Belmont remains unresolved, the project is no longer election fodder. That‘s because both of the Riordan-targeted incumbents were staunch Belmont-project opponents. Nor can Riordan run this time against the “failing” school district. His own endorsee, Genethia Hayes, has been school-board president for two years. And his endorsees occupy four of the seven seats. And, oops, test scores are up. So that brings things back to the teachers, especially considering the case of incumbent Valerie Fields.
Until a few weeks ago, Fields had sustained a delicate balancing act: Both the mayor and UTLA endorsed Fields. In 1997, before the mayor introduced big money, UTLA was the key -- along with Fields herself, who is well-known on the Westside, especially after a long stint serving as education adviser to former Mayor Tom Bradley.
When Riordan’s challengers joined the board in July 1999, Fields quickly found common cause with them. She was a more reliable fourth vote for them than David Tokofsky, the lone incumbent endorsed on Riordan‘s “reform” slate. It was Fields, in fact, who joined the “Riordan three” to oust Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. During this tumultuous period -- when Zacarias supporters led street protests -- it was Fields who tipped the scales, not only siding with the Riordan three, but helping them weather the ensuing storm.
“The mayor told me the whole four years of my term that he was my supporter,” said Fields, “besides telling me I was wonderful, and doing a great job, and calling me his hero, and telling me always to do what I thought was right.”
Riordan doesn’t deny this, noting that he explicitly told Fields he would endorse her as recently as three months ago: “Then I began to hear from people. I thought she was doing the bidding of the unions to the detriment of students.”
He finally asked Fields to meet him for a mid-January breakfast at the posh Omni Hotel. Before they got down to it, a radio reporter interviewed Riordan, who insisted on including Fields, while expressing his support for her. Then former USC quarterback Pat Haden stopped by. “The mayor told Haden he ought to support me,” recalled Fields. “Pat took a contribution envelope and the next day sent in a contribution.”
Soon the two were joined by Riordan ally Eli Broad, the billionaire businessman who was instrumental in recruiting current Superintendent Roy Romer, the former Colorado governor. Fields and Broad go way back, having served together on charitable boards when Fields would sit in as Mayor Bradley‘s representative. Broad had already contributed to Fields’ campaign.
Early in the conversation, Riordan pulled out hand-written notes for reference. “Somebody had given him a list of some cuts proposed by district Chief Financial Officer Joe Zeronian at a closed-session meeting of the school board,” said Fields. “I don‘t believe in revealing what goes on in these closed meetings, and legally we are not supposed to, not even to the mayor, but somebody did that and the mayor had notes.” According to Fields, Zeronian’s proposed cuts -- needed to pay for the teachers‘ contract -- were merely thrown out for discussion purposes. “We also talked about sums of money in different budgets that are not going to be expended this year. The mayor had all that, and he had a very specific figure of what he thought was the right amount to give teachers as a raise. He said that about 10 percent was okay, 11 percent was not.
”I told him 10 percent was history, that Superintendent Romer had already negotiated beyond that figure. I told him, ’You can‘t go backwards or you’ll cause a strike.‘
“He said, ’Oh, the teachers won‘t strike.’ He told me I should stick to his figure, which to me said, ‘You should undermine the superintendent.’
”That was pretty much it,“ continued Fields, adding that the meeting ended as cordially as it began. ”The mayor kissed me goodbye.“
And kissed her off.
A Riordan spokesman downplayed any link between the breakfast meeting -- or the size of the pay raise -- to the withdrawn endorsement. On the bus, however, Riordan made no attempt to sustain that polite fiction. He also added, ”I don‘t want people to do my bidding. If they do my bidding, they’re weak board members. I want strong board members.“