THE STATE’S TWO MOST POWERFUL teachers unions turned up the volume in the final days before the March 7 school board election, pouring more than $286,000 into the campaign of Christopher Arellano, one of four candidates seeking to replace Jose Huizar on the seven-member board. Arellano — a foe of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bid to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District — received nearly two-thirds of the money in the past week from the United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association, two organizations that are resisting a mayoral takeover.
The UTLA and the CTA, both huge backers of Villaraigosa during last year’s election, refused this time around to line up behind the mayor’s candidate, onetime Huizar aide Monica Garcia. The UTLA, which employs Arellano as an organizer, also scored an 11th-hour victory this week by blocking the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s endorsement of Garcia for the District 2 school board seat.
The contributions provided a remarkable turnaround for Arellano, who just five weeks ago reported that he had not raised a single cent for his campaign, union or otherwise. His transformation from penniless to powerhouse drew fire from candidate Ana Teresa Fernandez, who argued that school board seats have been “up for sale for quite a while.”
“I think the scary part is that we can have somebody who has no clear ties to education or dedication to the district who, just because of a bunch of money, becomes a top contender,” she said. “It’s not about the person anymore, it’s about the money. And that’s what happens when you’re allowed to just purchase a school board race.”
UTLA president A.J. Duffy did not respond to several calls seeking comment. But Arellano’s campaign released a statement saying their candidate is proud to have the backing of the UTLA — an endorsement that each of his opponents sought. In the statement, Arellano praised the union for shifting power “away from the bureaucrats” at L.A. Unified but described the endorsement as one of many high-profile endorsements, along with Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg, Sheriff Lee Baca and City Council President Eric Garcetti.
“This election is certainly not for sale,” he said. “We are all going to the debates, and I’m certainly going door to door, meeting with constituents. Anyone can win.”
By Wednesday, teachers union donations made up 97.2 percent of Arellano’s campaign contributions, including $50,000 from the CTA and the rest from the UTLA. While most of the money went directly to his campaign, the UTLA also provided Arellano’s school board bid with $28,740 worth of “independent expenditures” — funds that, by law, cannot be coordinated with the candidate. With Arellano nearing the $300,000 mark, he had collected far more than Garcia, who has raised $123,000, according to the latest campaign statements. Candidate Enrique Gasca trailed even further, with $68,000, while Fernandez had $47,000.
Garcia, contacted Wednesday by the L.A. Weekly, was attending her own fund-raiser on Olvera Street with Villaraigosa and Huizar. Hours later, she declined to assess the UTLA’s involvement, saying she is happy with her own union endorsements — including Service Employees International Union and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11.
“What the union does is important. And what individual people do, especially on March 7, will be even more important,” she said.
THE HUGE EXPENDITURES HIGHLIGHT an odd facet of Los Angeles elections — a complete lack of fund-raising limits for school board candidates. Citywide candidates may receive no more than $1,000 per election cycle, but contributors circumvent that rule by sending enormous independent-expenditure contributions. UTLA and the CTA did just that in last year’s mayoral election, spending $785,000 in independent expenditures on television ads, radio spots and even polling to support Villaraigosa. Then also poured another $134,974 into telling their own members about his mayoral campaign.
School board fund-raising is governed by state law, which has no ceiling on the size of contributions, said LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Ethics Commission. Oddly, the issue has gotten little play at the Joint Commission on School Governance, a 30-member city-school panel looking at ways of changing the governmental structure of the school district.
Huizar, who helped create the governance panel, said it is unfair to the voters to allow any single entity to pour so much money into one candidate and questioned whether the huge sums “twist the race in unexpected ways.”
“What happens if you have no contribution limits is, you have certain interests at the school district controlling who gets elected, and that’s what’s been happening for the last few decades,” said Huizar, who won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council four months ago and is now backing Garcia.
HUIZAR SPOKE ON THE ISSUE just one day after his own $500-per-ticket fund-raiser at the Century City law offices of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro, an event designed to eliminate his own lingering campaign debt. The fund-raiser — co-hosted by at least eight Jeffer Mangels attorneys, half of them registered lobbyists at City Hall — was promoted in a flier that promised an “informal discussion” on housing and development from Huizar, the new vice-chair of the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
The law firm that sponsored Huizar’s event was registered as a lobbyist for 53 clients at City Hall in 2005, including downtown developer Geoffrey Palmer — creator of the Orsini and Medici apartment complexes, who has sparred with Councilman Ed Reyes over affordable housing and the unpermitted demolition of an 1880s Victorian. Huizar said he had not seen the flier and said it should have mentioned his other council committees, not just the one that deals with lucrative development projects.
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“If you list all my committees, that will give a sense of what I’m interested in here at the City Council,” he added.
IN THE SCHOOL BOARD CAMPAIGN, the UTLA’s political prowess has extended far beyond fund-raising. On Monday, UTLA delegates flooded the endorsement meeting of the powerful County Federation of Labor, successfully denying the AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Garcia even though two-thirds of its federation’s endorsement board had recommended her. The move infuriated one union leader, who argued that the UTLA had disrupted the union’s well-established endorsement process.
Tyrone Freeman, who heads Service Employees International Union Local 434B, said he is open to a mayoral takeover and believes that L.A. Unified needs drastic change.
“What really disturbs me is that the interests of an individual union overshadowed the interests of working families in Los Angeles,” Freeman said. “You try not to blame the teachers, but when their representatives go against the best interests of working men and women’s representatives — two-thirds of the [endorsement] board — it raises an issue.”