On June 27, far from Los Angeles in the state capital, Assemblywoman Betsy Butler refused to vote on a major reform of the byzantine California laws that give sex-pervert teachers and violent teachers a strong hand in fighting school districts that try to fire them. Butler, under pressure from the California Teachers Association, which has fought to maintain the intricate protections, never dreamed that her abstention from voting — which helped kill the law — would come back to haunt her.
Butler, running on Nov. 6 to represent one of the wealthiest voting districts in America — the Westside's state Assembly District 50 — is in a political fistfight with a fellow Democrat, Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom, previously seen as the underdog.
"Betsy has been hurt by the mini-scandal," says Jaime Regalado, a longtime political analyst. "Richard probably has more going for him."
Butler is backed by the Democratic Party machine and its money — $1.3 million so far versus Bloom's $507,000 — and enjoys endorsements from many Democratic honchos. But she's made a series of missteps and found herself in the crosshairs of CNN's Anderson Cooper.
It all started in late June, when she and three other Democrats on the state Assembly Education Committee — Mike Eng, Wilmer Amina Carter and Das Williams — refused to vote on SB 1530. The idea was to let the reform die, as the California Teachers Association wished.
The bill, authored by state senator Alex Padilla, D-L.A., would have allowed school districts to more easily fire teachers for committing physical abuse, sexual abuse or drug-related acts upon their students.
In the wake of the Miramonte Elementary School sex scandal and other revelations about teacher pervert and sex abuse, Padilla and education experts were shocked by the four Democratic abstentions. In a July 19 L.A. Weekly story, "Why California Democrats Protect Sex Abuser Teachers," former state legislator Gloria Romero, now the California director of Democrats for Education Reform, said, "Bills in the Assembly don't die because the members vote no. They die because [Assembly] members are silent. They show no backbone."
Then, in late August, Cooper focused on the abstentions by Sacramento Democrats to kill the sex-pervert bill on Anderson Cooper 360. CNN interviewed Romero and Padilla, while Butler refused their repeated efforts to land an interview.
But even after that nationwide exposure, Butler's role in killing off SB 1530 wasn't well-known among voters until backers of rival candidate Richard Bloom blasted out mass emails of the Cooper video. Former West Hollywood city councilman Steve Martin and other friends who back Bloom each emailed the link to 200 or 300 people.
"I was surprised the Bloom people weren't sending it out," Martin says. "It's a powerful piece. I don't know anyone who's seen [the CNN segment] who doesn't come out against Betsy Butler."
He adds, "It just hits all the wrong notes."
With the controversy mushrooming, Butler dedicated a page of her campaign site to her SB 1530 nonvote. She says the Western Growers Association, a powerful lobbying group, is paying for attack mailings about her inaction on the sex-pervert bill as payback for her support of an unrelated bill to require shade and water for farmworkers.
Butler acted as "author" of that law, Assembly Bill 2346. But in fact the United Farmworkers Union ghost-wrote the bill. Many farm groups including WGA fought AB 2346, saying it would unjustifiably place minor offenders on a list of "high hazard industry employers" and open up growers to a new raft of frivolous lawsuits. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Butler's bill.
Butler also is lashing out at L.A. Unified School District officials and Padilla, who she claims alerted CNN's Cooper to her abstention on the teacher sex-pervert bill.
It isn't beyond the realm of possibility that Superintendent John Deasy or somebody else at LAUSD headquarters called Cooper to shine a light on the nonvotes by Butler, Eng, Williams and Carter that killed SB 1530 in committee.
After all, Deasy and his core managers spent six months dealing with the anguish caused by accused teacher Mark Berndt, who allegedly fed young students cookies with his own semen on them.
Deasy's office did not respond to the Weekly's requests for comment.
Berndt eventually was paid $40,000 by L.A. Unified to retire — because he was so hard to fire under California's current teacher-protection laws. He's been in jail since last winter, with bail set at $23 million.
In an Oct. 22 WeHo News article, Butler described SB 1530 as "McCarthyism" that threatened teachers' due process rights. She added: "If you want to have a discussion about the merits of this bill, I'm happy to do it, but [LAUSD] and Sen. Padilla got Anderson Cooper out here to shake us around ... [so that] in July all this ridiculousness and sensationalism is happening in the media."
Padilla's spokesman, John Mann, told the Weekly his office didn't lift a finger to get attention. "I'm the press guy," Mann says. "Anderson Cooper's people called us."
Butler sent the Weekly a 333-word email in which she decries the "stripping away" of teacher protections in Padilla's bill. Teachers currently are allowed a prolonged review and appeals process. It can take years to fire a teacher, even in an egregious case. Butler says she'll introduce a law that's more fair to teachers, adding that a child's safety is her "top priority."
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, calls Butler's slams at Padilla and LAUSD "the type of language that candidates use when they're worried that an attack on them is having an impact."
During October, Butler seemed to blame everyone else. On Oct. 17, she publicly lashed out at the senior Democrat who heads the Assembly Education Committee, telling a crowd at Palisades Elementary that chairwoman Julie Brownley was to blame for the failure of the sex-pervert bill.
Brownley had sided with Republican legislators in refusing to water down Democrat Padilla's law, which would abolish a powerful three-person review panel dominated by teachers. The panel is widely viewed as biased in favor of bad-acting educators. Butler said of Brownley: "The fact that she voted with Republicans was just an easier way than dealing with the issues involved."
Brownley wouldn't comment.
Bloom was a low-key candidate in the primary, in which he placed a close second. Now the Santa Monica mayor is getting much more aggressive.
He says Butler's fingerpointing — she has blamed or attacked Anderson Cooper, Brownley, Padilla, WGA and LAUSD officials for her rough year — is a "strategy of distraction that's not going to fly" with voters. "She's trying to give the impression that things are OK [in Sacramento] — and they are clearly not OK."
Bloom declares, "I would have voted for the bill."
West Hollywood City Councilman John Duran, a supporter of Butler's, says, "I don't think it's a controversy beyond what people are blogging about."
Regalado, though, thinks the struggle over SB 1530 is nothing to dismiss. Because of Butler's missteps, he says, the "advantage" goes to Bloom.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.