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Out With the Old

Riordan, Ted Soqui

Richard Riordan bought himself an education revolution this week, claiming apparent victories in three school-board races and throwing the fourth contest into a runoff that favors his endorsed challenger.

Although the results were promising for Riordan in all the contests, he achieved clear-cut wins in two races, with challenger Mike Lansing unseating incumbent George Kiriyama and challenger Caprice Young defeating incumbent Jeff Horton. A probable win was scored by David Tokofsky — the only incumbent Riordan endorsed — but the narrow margin of victory leaves that outcome technically in doubt until all remaining ballots are counted. The fourth and final race will be settled in a June runoff pitting incumbent Barbara Boudreaux against challenger Genethia Hayes.

Just as he had vowed, Riordan collected some $2 million to pour into these school-board races, and it was this money that allowed the Riordan-endorsed candidates to convey their message that the city’s schools are in crisis and their governing board in need of a major overhaul.

"I think Dick Riordan has tapped into the public sentiment about the deterioration of the schools," said Democratic political consultant Harvey Englander. "He also has taken the next step: to do something about it. He has supported or opposed on other issues, but never like this has he come up with real plans to do something."

Riordan’s something is, by most accounts, the most expensive school-board campaign in the nation’s history. Even though the targeted incumbents raised more money than ever before, Riordan-supported challengers outspent them all by margins ranging from more than 2-to-1 to nearly 6-to-1, according to campaign disclosure forms updated on Election Day. The greatest disparity was in District 7, the southernmost part of the school system, including San Pedro, Gardena and Watts. In this contest, incumbent Kiriyama raised a respectable $138,000, but Riordan-backed challenger Lansing was handed $815,000. Of this total, about $771,000 came directly from Coalition for Kids, the political-action committee Riordan established to fund his candidates.

Kiriyama, with the financial backing and endorsement of the teachers union, tried to turn Riordan’s support into a negative. "They want to take over our schools," proclaimed one mailer. "Let’s send the powerful outside interests a message." Another flier featured a clenched fist holding dollars: "Stop the power grab," went the text. "Don’t let outside interests buy our school district . . . Our children’s future is not for sale." Kiriyama presented himself in campaign materials as the school board’s good-natured, pork-barrel trustee, someone who’d delivered millions of dollars in programs for schools in the areas he represents. Kiriyama did not convey this message effectively in person. A slow and halting speaker, Kiriyama avoided several joint appearances with Lansing. And then, a week before the election, he made matters worse for himself after agreeing to appear at one particularly high-profile debate. Before the discussion began, Kiriyama proceeded to read a speech, stride off the stage and bustle out the door — a stunt that received broad and unflattering media coverage.

Kiriyama’s race was the only one that pitted the mayor directly against the powerful teachers union — up until now the main provider of funds in board elections. And the mayor — with more money on the table — prevailed handily as Lansing bested Kiriyama by more than 8 percentage points.

Like Kiriyama, incumbent Barbara Boudreaux found herself a financial underdog. Her District 1 encompasses South-Central Los Angeles, an area dominated at the polls by elderly black voters. Her strategy was to trump the mayor’s money with the race card. Boudreaux, an African-American, and her key supporters accused Riordan of attempting to disenfranchise black voters by putting forward a puppet black candidate. The tactic was not enough to beat back challenger Genethia Hayes, a well-known, independent-minded community activist who had entered the race before Riordan decided to offer his support.

But Boudreaux is no pushover on the campaign trail either; she had prevailed in two previous elections despite concerted opposition from the teachers union. This time around, Hayes, a first-time candidate, received more votes than Boudreaux, but failed to claim a majority in the four-person race, necessitating the June runoff. That outcome was a relief to the Hayes camp. "Get an incumbent in a runoff and they’ve got big problems," noted Riordan political consultant Bill Carrick.

The dynamic in the Jeff Horton– Caprice Young contest for District 3 boiled down to who presented the best portfolio as a school reformer. This district includes the liberal strongholds of Echo Park and Silver Lake, neighborhoods that have, in the past, strongly supported Horton, a protégé of popular City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. In a series of well-crafted mailers, Horton underscored steps he’d taken to improve student achievement. Meanwhile, on the school board itself, he quickly offered a flurry of motions to strengthen his portfolio as a solid fiscal custodian.

Besides the campaign-funding gap, however, Horton (and Boudreaux) had another serious problem: the $200 million, scandal-plagued Belmont Learning Complex, the most expensive high school construction project in state history. As consultant Englander noted, Belmont is a tailor-made issue for a challenger. "People can say Belmont and you know exactly what they mean, in the same way that the words Watergate or Whitewater have meaning."

Added Riordan consultant Carrick: "People were really angry about Belmont, and it’s something they knew about. It’s become a metaphor for what’s wrong with the school board."

Horton was a proud prime mover for Belmont, and in the main, he still is. But backers of the project have lost the public-relations war. Knowing this, the Horton campaign tried to portray their candidate as a latter-day Belmont watchdog, but the make-over didn’t appear to stick. Nor did Horton’s negative characterization of Young, who had worked in middle management at both the Mayor’s Office and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In mailers, the Horton campaign juxtaposed headlines detailing MTA boondoggles with text asserting that "Caprice Young wants to do for our schools what she did for the MTA." But Horton’s camp never made any real connection between Young and MTA scandals, and never successfully distanced their own candidate from the problems at Belmont. Young outpolled Horton 56.7 percent to 43.3 percent.

Although they weren’t running against each other, the campaign, at times, seemed a contest between Horton and fellow incumbent Tokofsky. Horton has forged a reputation as the respected, earnest gradualist, someone who has made peace with the bureaucracy, someone who defends the school system while working agreeably from within in the direction of reform. Tokofsky, by contrast, is the school board’s Jeremiah, loudly proclaiming the system’s multiple sins; he’s an iconoclast who’s comfortably at war with a bureaucracy that in turn views him as an irritant and an impediment. Even though Horton has steadfastly supported LEARN, Riordan’s favored school-reform program, the mayor sided with Tokofsky. Horton, he concluded, was simply not bold enough for the crisis at hand.

While voters identified with Riordan’s message about a deficient school district, they failed to appreciate the mayor’s distinction between Horton and Tokofsky. To many voters, apparently, an incumbent is an incumbent, and Tokofsky nearly went down alongside Horton on Tuesday.

At press time, Tokofsky led challenger Yolie Flores Aguilar by less than one percentage point — 310 votes to be exact. Citywide, about 10,000 so-called provisional ballots remain to be counted from voters who delivered their absentee ballots to polling places on Election Day. The math seems to favor Tokofsky, but it could be days before election officials declare an official winner.

Tokofsky was expected by many to trounce Flores Aguilar, given his endorsement by some prominent Latinos and his funding from both the teachers union and the mayor. In fact, neither the union nor the mayor mounted a full-court press on Tokofsky’s behalf; it didn’t seem necessary against the underfunded Flores Aguilar. But besides the widespread anti-incumbent sentiment, Tokofsky, an Anglo, represents a district that, for the first time, has a majority Latino voting population. Moreover, his District 5 overlaps heavily with two City Council districts that featured hotly contested races with strong Latino candidates, an equation that propelled a turnout of voters less inclined to support Tokofsky. He also suffered an unintended pummeling through the television ads of Riordan-backed challengers in other school-board races. Their cable-TV buys — with a powerful anti-incumbent theme — bled into Tokofsky’s jigsaw district, which snakes across the city from the east San Fernando Valley to East L.A. And then there was Flores Aguilar herself, a fierce campaigner and well-known advocate for children’s programs.

Although Riordan’s anti-incumbent slate is noticeably devoid of a specific policy platform, his candidates share a respect for Tokofsky; each one characterizes him as a philosophical ally who would assist their understanding of how the district operates. Given that sentiment, it would be strange indeed if Tokofsky loses while those who would ally themselves with him prevail. If, as expected, he does survive the final tally, it will fall to Tokofsky to show that he can lead a new majority as effectively as he opposed the old one.

Aaron M. Fontana and Sara Dunn contributed to this story.


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