In the most ingenious television commercial of the 2005 Los Angeles mayoral campaign, a man in a suit runs away from the camera, at night, through a darkened forest. “Been looking for Mayor Hahn? So have the 740,000 students in our Los Angeles schools,” intones the voice-over, as a flashlight shines on the fleeing, faceless pol. “In four years as mayor, he’s only been to two school board meetings, and one was a staged campaign event.”
Bankrolled by the California Teachers Association, the $500,000 ad had “Blair Witch Project” written all over it, featuring shaky camerawork, grainy black-and-white footage and a devastating message: Not only was Mayor James Hahn out of touch on public education, but he was actually afraid to engage the issue.
Unleashed two weeks before the May 17 election, the ad focused on the earnest face of a teacher from 10th Avenue Elementary School, then zoomed in on mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, standing tall in a classroom surrounded by elementary school children. With a background of delicate piano music, the kind that accompanies a happy ending in a Lifetime network television movie, the 30-second spot concluded with a simple slogan: “Villaraigosa. He’ll be there.”
One year has passed since the state’s largest teachers’ organization threw its money, clout and media savvy behind Villaraigosa. As it turned out, the attack ad was prescient: Villaraigosa did make education his top priority. The mayor is there, and everywhere, on the issue of public schools, campaigning as though the election had never finished. But his policy agenda did not turn out quite the way the CTA planned.
Villaraigosa made a mayoral takeover of the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second-largest school system — his No. 1 policy initiative. And the opponent in the campaign is no longer Hahn, but L.A. Unified and the powerful teachers’ unions — which strongly oppose mayoral control. City Controller and Villaraigosa aide-de-camp Laura Chick, so effective in her blowtorching of Hahn during the last campaign, has already spent months turning the flame on L.A. Unified administrators, priming them for Villaraigosa’s attack. The sharp criticism has already caused Superintendent Roy Romer to accuse Villaraigosa of “trashing the district” to further his political agenda.
Asked recently to respond, the mayor paused for nearly half a minute, just as he used to do on the campaign trail, as though he were leafing through an invisible mental Rolodex, searching for the appropriate soundbite. Back when Hahn used to attack him, Villaraigosa relied on the same biting response: “Those are the words of a desperate and failed mayor.” As he walked briskly with his security detail in tow, Villaraigosa finally settled on a response to Romer, one that rang oddly familiar: “Those are the words” — Villaraigosa’s voice was now drained of emotion — “of frustration and desperation.”
Villaraigosa’s bid to take over L.A. Unified has become the defining issue of his new administration, the first major test of whether he can defeat a special interest that has been a lifelong ally. Mayoral takeover is deeply intertwined with Villaraigosa’s past, allowing him to tap his own painful memories as a onetime high school dropout inspired by an influential public school teacher. But it is just as closely linked with his future — namely, his ambitions for the governor’s mansion and beyond.
If Villaraigosa fails to seize control of the district, a sprawling bureaucracy that covers Los Angeles and 26 other cities, he will experience his most public defeat since his loss to Hahn in 2001. If he wins, he just may create a wedge issue large enough to divide, or at least distract, the Democrats and the powerful CTA — political allies for a generation — just as they are supposed to be uniting to defeat Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Villaraigosa came to the issue of municipal takeover almost by accident, embracing the concept late in the mayoral campaign as he and Hahn were competing to see who could be tougher on education. Yet as a former teachers’-union organizer, he seems almost uniquely qualified to lead such a campaign, the type who could pull a Nixon in China — a phrase he has used to describe himself. Bewildered teachers’ union leaders have offered no angry challenges to his plan, voicing instead a mixture of confusion and disappointment in the man they consider an ally. That response has stunned some at City Hall, who argue that the unions would not have been so sanguine if mayoral takeover had been initiated by Schwarzenegger. “If they wanted to take him out at the knees, they could do so,” said one council aide. “How long are they going to wait?”
With Villaraigosa briefing state lawmakers this week on mayoral takeover, the CTA and United Teachers Los Angeles — the 48,000-member union that represents L.A. Unified — now face the prospect of mobilizing yet again, this time to thwart Villaraigosa’s will in Sacramento. The CTA may in fact be the last line of defense for the institution known as the L.A. Unified’s Board of Education — a seven-member elected body that would become a political eunuch under Villaraigosa’s plan. As a result, the CTA’s message on the mayor — from top administrators to rank-and-file teachers — has grown considerably more complicated in the year since its withering commercial.