Megabucks Marlene

The ascension of Marlene Canter to the school board next month supposedly cements a ”Riordan reform majority“ to run L.A. Unified, capping a throw-out-the-rascals campaign begun three years ago. But it wasn‘t money from Mayor Riordan and friends that elected Canter. It was mainly dough from Canter herself, who spent about $2.125 million of her personal fortune to win an office that pays $24,000 per year.

All by herself, Canter made the battle to represent Westside kids into the nation’s most expensive school-board campaign ever. And she owes allegiance to Riordan? The man about to become the former mayor of Los Angeles?

What Canter really owes to Riordan is the model for her campaign -- and we‘re not talking school reform here, but the mayoral race that brought Riordan into office. In 1993, Richard Riordan was a civically active, but politically obscure businessman. On the campaign trail, he trumpeted his success in private enterprise, while running as an outsider against City Hall. His theme was actually a City Hall version of back-to-basics: more cops. Most important, Riordan paid his own way, to the tune of more than $6 million in self-financing. (Unlike Canter, Riordan had to reach all of L.A.; thus Canter arguably ponied up more per voter.)

Canter, 53, mirrored the Riordan formula. She, too, has been active in community organizations, but never as a player in city politics. She is not as rich as Riordan (who had the head start of being born into money) but nonetheless made millions -- by developing and promulgating, with former husband Lee Canter, a popular teacher-training program.

Canter had enough distance from school officialdom to portray her opponent, Valerie Fields, as the stale incumbent in a failing bureaucracy. Riordan underscored that theme by providing Canter’s campaign with signs reading, ”Valerie Fields has FAILED.“

That‘s the grade for this semester only, of course. Riordan used to call Fields his ”hero“ -- until she sided with the union, and against the mayor, on the size of this year’s pay raise for teachers.

All told, the Riordan-controlled Coalition for Kids spent more money for one of Canter‘s opponents than for Canter, according to campaign-disclosure records reviewed by the Weekly. In the primary, the Coalition had backed strip-mall builder Matthew Rodman as the alternative to Fields, to the tune of more than $620,000. When Rodman didn’t make the June runoff, Riordan went with Canter, to whom his coalition contributed a bit over $300,000.

(Coalition for Kids also pumped $600,000 into the losing campaign of Tom Riley, who tried to unseat San Fernando Valley incumbent Julie Korenstein. And, perhaps to create a sense of obligation, the coalition kicked in more than $90,000 to the campaign of board newcomer Jose Huizar, whose one opponent was running only a token race for the Eastside seat. Not to be outdone, the United Teachers of Los Angeles also dumped unneeded contributions on Huizar.)

In all, the Canter campaign raised about $2.8 million. Though vastly outspent, Fields was no fund-raising slouch, pulling in about $1.4 million and relying mostly on union support, especially that of the teachers union. In a campaign that was strikingly negative on both sides, Canter collected 54 percent of the vote.

Talk about inflation: Four years ago, Fields raised less than one-sixth as much, around $215,000, to pay for her successful campaign, which included a runoff. Four years earlier, Mark Slavkin raised less than $100,000 to win that same seat. If only board members could translate such inflation to the test scores.

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