A Million-Dollar Moment

THE MOST TELLING MOMENT IN this school-board debate came after the cameras stopped rolling last week. The four candidates were packing up after their cable-TV Q&A, when moderator Bill Rosendahl casually asked who was going to get money from former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad.

That very same question has been on many minds, because this lucre had been expected to flood into the pivotal race for District 5. But, mysteriously, nothing had happened.

David Tokofsky, the current school-board member, was the first to look over quizzically at challenger Nellie Rios-Parra. Or maybe he pointed at her. Witness accounts differ slightly. Then challenger Maria Lou Calanché looked or pointed at Rios-Parra. Then it was the turn of challenger Jose Sigala. With all eyes or fingers pointed her way, Rios-Parra, suddenly in the center of uncomfortable attention, offered that she hoped to get the money. As recently as the night before, Rios-Parra had denied that she had financial backing from Riordan and Broad’s Coalition for Kids.

But Tokofsky could not resist egging her on, saying something like: “‘Oh yeah, Nellie, you’re trying to get their money? Don’t you already have their money?’ And then,” Tokofsky recalled later, “she says, ‘Yes, I do.’”

It was the moment that everyone had been waiting for — or dreading — depending on the perspective. Rios-Parra said later that the funding would help her “level the playing field” against the incumbent. Up till now, she and her husband have managed the campaign out of their house. The coalition threw in an initial $50,000 contribution, but the endorsement could literally be worth a million before this high-cost joust is through.

Three and a half months have passed since the L.A. Times broke the story that Riordan and Broad were trying to recruit an opponent to face Tokofsky, whom they’d endorsed in the past. At one point, the millionaire and the billionaire seemed to dangle a substantial donation to Occidental College as a lure to draw Occidental president Ted Mitchell into the race.

Mitchell didn’t bite. But Tokofsky bit back. The theory goes something like: If you can’t get their money, use it against them. Suddenly, he campaigned as the valiant independent, unafraid to stand up to big-money interests.

Meanwhile, the Riordan-Broad faction virtually invited little-known Nellie Rios-Parra into the race in what seemed like a package deal. On the one hand, her husband, Alvin Parra, backed out of his campaign for a City Council seat to clear the path for Antonio Villaraigosa. It seemed as though the consolation prize for Parra was to be a school-board seat for his spouse.

But Coalition for Kids held off even making a school-board endorsement in the 5th District until last week. The vexing question is why.

Riordan and Broad are traveling abroad this week, and neither made himself available for comment. Coalition director Amy Wakeland explained that it just took time to evaluate which challenger deserved the support and which one could win.

One apparent problem is that Rios-Parra, who administers a preschool program in Lennox, hasn’t exactly lit up the firmament more than Sigala, a top aide to Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, or than Calanché, a community-college instructor. Riordan and Broad certainly don’t want a repeat of the last election cycle, when their anointed and well-funded Westside candidate didn’t even make the runoff. One theory had Coalition for Kids sitting out the primary, in anticipation that Tokofsky would make the runoff and that the coalition could then support the surviving Latino. That candidate would then also benefit from District 5’s 59 percent Latino voter registration.

There also was another problem. When Riordan and/or Broad interviewed prospective challengers last fall, all of them gave some “wrong” answers.

Rios-Parra, especially, was as “wrong” as could be on bilingual education, noting her enthusiastic endorsement of traditional bilingual-education programs, which assert that English-language learners may need several years of instruction in Spanish. She forthrightly repeated these views in an interview with the Weekly. Then there was the time last fall when she told a television reporter that she was running to give “a voice to teachers.” That was certainly off-message, given the coalition’s fundamental goal of defeating candidates closely allied with the teachers union, which supports Tokofsky. The coalition has already engaged United Teachers Los Angeles in two of the three other board races.

In the end, Tokofsky’s views on the litmus questions line up reasonably with Riordan’s. Tokofsky, for example, was a consistent critic of bilingual education and supports the district’s recent emphasis on English immersion.

For the record, the anti-Tokofsky message from the coalition isn’t so much about issues; rather, it’s that he’s not enough of a leader. Leadership skills, thoughtful independence and a focus on student achievement matter more than specific positions on hot-button issues, said the Coalition’s Wakeland.

So the choice is Rios-Parra. And now, the other Latino challengers can, like Tokofsky, try to use the Riordan-Broad connection against her — if they can find enough alternative funding to deliver the message.

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