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
As the mayor’s campaign has progressed, L.A. Unified teachers like Mary Rose Ortega have found themselves fielding the same question from educators up and down the state: What’s with Antonio? Ortega should know. A resident of Highland Park who taught in low-income neighborhoods for 30 years, Ortega has been a loyal foot soldier for Villaraigosa through six different elections. She telephoned voters on his behalf, walked door-to-door for his campaign, and even became his representative on a 30-member advisory panel that is developing ways of improving the district. Yet Ortega, now a member of the CTA board, has no answer for colleagues who fear that if Los Angeles loses its school board, Fresno, Sacramento and other districts will be next to fall.
“They’re not happy, because they feel he’s doing an Arnold to us, basically,” said Ortega, referring to the governor who tangled with the CTA last year and lost big. “There has been this trust that teachers have held for Antonio for a long time, and he’s losing it. It’s the same with Arnold. We tried to trust him, and he stabbed us in the back. Now they don’t trust him. If Antonio does this, he will lose all trust with teachers.”
To achieve victory, Villaraigosa has embarked on a complex and potentially risky strategy that seeks to avoid an ugly fight at the ballot box with the CTA and United Teachers Los Angeles, which together spent nearly $1 million on his behalf in his last campaign. Steering clear of an electoral battle, however, means placing the entire question of mayoral control in the hands of the state Legislature — a group whose members have their own reasons for keeping the CTA happy.
Villaraigosa laid out his takeover strategy last month in a 35-minute State of the City address that, instead of offering the usual numbing statistics on the accomplishments of the past year, put forth a vision for how a school district would operate under the supervision of City Hall. The superintendent would be chosen by a council of 28 mayors, with Villaraigosa controlling 83 percent of the vote, and the school board would be handed a radically reduced portfolio — disciplinary issues, school transfers and parent surveys.
Villaraigosa had been promising an election for months, one involving every voter within L.A. Unified. By shifting the action to Sacramento, Villaraigosa lobbed a grenade into the halls of the Capitol — forcing lawmakers to scramble on an issue that, under the mayor’s original plan, was never supposed to be up to them.
Lawmakers almost immediately ran for cover. Assemblywoman Karen Bass, a West Los Angeles progressive who had stood with Villaraigosa only days before at a movie screening on the union movement in Los Angeles, said through a spokeswoman that she needed to research the issue. Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza, a Long Beach Democrat whose home page contains a large picture of her with Villaraigosa, would not issue a statement. State Senator Alan Lowenthal, whose district takes in southeast Los Angeles County, was flat-out uncomfortable coming to the phone. “He wants to sit down and get his head around it,” said Lowenthal spokesman John Casey.
None of the responses was surprising. After all, the mayor was asking state lawmakers to choose between him, a growing force in the Democratic Party who just might waltz into the governor’s mansion in 2010, and the CTA, the group that spent $50 million to defeat Schwarzenegger’s four reform-oriented ballot measures in November. Furthermore, a third of the state Assembly is now up for grabs, since term limits are forcing out the bumper crop of 2000. Termed-out lawmakers are trying to jump from one house to the other. And each candidate who wants to prevail in the June primary will be seeking the endorsement of Villaraigosa, who in turn just might need them to support his mayoral takeover, particularly if a takeover bill takes two years to pass.
Keenly aware of the delicate balancing act needed to engineer such a takeover, Villaraigosa offered an olive branch to the education lobby in his State of the City address, largely avoiding the denunciations of L.A. Unified that marked his earlier speeches, and referring to his own background as a UTLA organizer. Standing in the gymnasium of the Accelerated School, a charter school in South Los Angeles, a visibly nervous Villaraigosa tried to put a less-threatening face on his plan by appealing directly to teachers.
“Change is never comfortable. I understand your fear,” said the mayor, as his speech was broadcast live during the dinner hour. “It’s hard to risk what you’ve got, when you’ve never had what you deserve.”
Two weeks later, Ortega — the woman who held a campaign party for Villaraigosa in her Highland Park home — sounded unconvinced. “You see, we trusted him. And you know, sometimes you can trust people too much.”
Education is a theme woven tightly into the mayor’s personal history, a biography that is used, in turn, by Villaraigosa to advance his plan for taking over public schools. In speeches and interviews, Villaraigosa has told and retold stories of his mother, a single parent living in the working-class neighborhood of City Terrace, seeking to inspire her children by reading them poetry. He tells how he was kicked out of Cathedral High School, a Catholic campus near downtown Los Angeles. And he describes how he got a second chance at Roosevelt High School, a public school where he found an advocate in Herman Katz, a teacher and counselor who pushed him to take the SAT and attend college.