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Anti-Choice Mayor 

A political machine squeezes out Tokofsky, Montañez and Fuentes, giving voters sanitized choices

Wednesday, Dec 20 2006
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How does that phrase from the playground go again? Quitters never win, and winners never quit, right? It’s a good concept to keep in mind when following Los Angeles politics these days, since so many candidates are dropping out of so many political races — and almost always in a way that benefits the agenda of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But we digress. To get our story started, it might be good to look back at the last big party at City Hall, hosted by one state Senator Alex Padilla. The upwardly mobile lawmaker from Pacoima brought to City Council chambers a marching band, cheerleaders, and scores of adoring fans who offered effusive praise to — who else? — Alex Padilla, for leaving his job as a councilman and becoming a state lawmaker.

The city’s two largest daily newspapers were appalled, grousing that the sendoff was staged in the middle of a council meeting, forcing the public to suffer through two hours of gushing tributes. But the love fest was, in fact, much craftier than it appeared.

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Fans of Padilla found another reason to be in downtown Los Angeles that day: a nearby breakfast fund-raiser for Felipe Fuentes, Padilla’s chief of staff and the man Padilla chose as his heir apparent to the City Council. Contributors who attended the $500-per-ticket breakfast on Olvera Street, which generated at least $50,000 for Fuentes’ campaign, found they could conveniently walk over to the Padilla party after breakfast.

Those contributors were left holding the bag last week when Fuentes abruptly quit the council race. For weeks, Fuentes had promised his supporters he would stick to his guns and fight any move by his opponent, Assemblyman Richard Alarcón, to push him out of the race. Yet there was Fuentes, days later, calling scores of people who wrote checks for his campaign, which never materialized, telling them that he had decided to drop out — and endorse Alarcón.

You’d think former Assemblywoman Cindy Montañez, another candidate for Padilla’s open council seat, would have been thrilled. But hours later, Montañez said she too had decided to bow out and endorse Alarcón.

Fuentes and Montañez are the latest examples of the hot trend in Los Angeles politics: the tidy disappearance of candidates trying to challenge forces larger than themselves — or offer voters another choice. Think of it as the Sacramento-ization of City Hall, where deals are cut behind the scenes to clear the field for hand-picked candidates chosen by the powers that be. In L.A.’s current political climate, campaigns mysteriously evaporate. Candidates who are on the attack one day suddenly go mute the next.

And each time a candidate is anointed and the opposition removed — not just by Alarcón, but by the rising machine of Villaraigosa — the electorate misses out on a serious debate in which candidates compete over ideas for improving Los Angeles. Imagine, for example, the 2005 mayoral election without third-place candidate Bob Hertzberg, who single-handedly made struggling public schools the No. 1 issue.

For City Hall, the first troubling sign came last year, when Herb Wesson — a former state Assembly speaker — decided to run for city council. For weeks, Wesson had been expected to face Denise Fairchild, an expert on vocational training who had already hired campaign consultant Parke Skelton. On the final day to formally file to run, Villaraigosa — a Wesson ally — named Fairchild as his “special adviser” on economic development for South Los Angeles. Needless to say, she abandoned her campaign.

Skelton clearly knows the drill by now. While the once-scrappy Montañez would not come to the telephone, Skelton acknowledged in a telephone interview that Montañez, now his client, was not happy about quitting but felt that other political opportunities would come her way. Other City Hall veterans were more blunt, arguing Montañez would not have backed out unless she thought she was going to be dumped by Team Villaraigosa.

“I think clearly she got indications that she would not have the mayor, she would not have labor, and not even have what one would call a progressive wing,” said City Hall lobbyist Steve Afriat, who has worked for candidates in the San Fernando Valley.

Nathan James, spokesman for Villaraigosa’s education campaign, dismissed the notion of a mayoral machine, saying he knew of no efforts by the mayor to get candidates in or out. Each candidate is deciding independently, based on their ability to run a viable campaign, he said, adding, “I think the folks who have jumped in have done it because they want to make a difference” in L.A. Unified.

By mid-December, quitters were all over the landscape, thanks to the upcoming school board election. First to go was Luis Sanchez, talented leader of the nonprofit group Inner City Struggle, who had hoped to unseat school board member David Tokofsky, a major Villaraigosa foe. Sanchez, who fought hard to add college-prep courses to the L.A. Unified curriculum, withdrew from the race and backed Villaraigosa’s candidate, Yolie Flores Aguilar. Sanchez said he did not want to help hand a victory to Tokofsky — who is white and speaks fluent Spanish in an increasingly Latino district — by running and draining Latino votes from Aguilar. And like Fairchild, Sanchez will still have something to keep him occupied:managing Aguilar’s campaign.

Next to drop was Bea Stotzer, a Villaraigosa commissioner who had hoped to unseat school board member Jon Lauritzen, a mayoral target in the San Fernando Valley. Stotzer had been gathering signatures for her campaign, when suddenly she dropped out.

Privately, sources said Stotzer was seething after being urged to run by Team Villaraigosa, then told she wasn’t as strong a candidate as Tamar Galatzan — who is now the mayor’s expected pick. Publicly, Stotzer insists she is simply a good soldier, making the sacrifice needed to unseat Lauritzen and help the mayor get more control over L.A. Unified.

“I believe that he has an opportunity to really create some incredible reforms, and I did not want to be in the way,” she said.

The biggest shocker of all was the sudden departure of Tokofsky, a disheveled 12-year school board veteran who once had Villaraigosa’s backing but is now a sworn enemy, thanks to the fight over the mayor’s bid to control L.A. Unified. Tokofsky dropped out one day after meeting with two bigwigs from the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles teachers union that has bankrolled school board members for years.

UTLA president A.J. Duffy, who has been tight with Villaraigosa, didn’t even bother to attend the Tokofsky meeting. And union vice president Josh Pechthalt made clear there was no guarantee Tokofsky would get their nod. Even if Tokofsky did, it came with strings: Tokofsky would not get much-needed campaign funds until February, far too late in the campaign, after the mayor’s team had pounded him in mailers and other media.

Tokofsky insisted that the UTLA confab wasn’t the only factor in his decision. “Could they have been a little more encouraging? Yes. But would [more solid support] have swayed my decision? I don’t know,” he said.

Others in the union fear that its leaders are marching to the mayor’s beat on the upcoming election. High school teacher Warren Fletcher, who opposes the mayor’s takeover, said, “The [union] leadership is still working within the framework of ‘We and Antonio are a team.’ That’s their worldview. And as a result, that’s affecting their take on any number of political issues.”

So unhappy was the UTLA’s teacher-controlled legislative body over the union brass’s pale support for Tokofsky — a fighter for many teachers’ issues over the years — that they in turn blocked the union’s nomination of likely Villaraigosa candidate Richard Vladovic, a former school administrator running to replace departing board member Mike Lansing. The teachers also forced their union leaders to back Lauritzen, another Villaraigosa foe, earlier than expected.

As of now, the March 6 school board races feature just four, three or even two competing candidates, leaving voters with fewer and fewer choices.

As for the City Council race — well, a funny thing happened in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Assemblyman Richard Alarcón’s one-two punch scared off his competitors, Fuentes and Montañez, but still didn’t produce exactly the desired effect. By Friday, no fewer than nine other candidates had stepped forward to run against Alarcón, ranging from bit players at City Hall to Monica Rodriguez, one-time aide to both former mayor Richard Riordan and former councilman Mike Hernandez.

Yes, Rodriguez had heard rumors of the backroom deals designed to wipe out any real competition against Alarcón. But she declared that she’s in it to win: “There’s nothing that could have been given [to] me to get me out.”

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