San Gabriel School Board member Scott Svonkin pounds on tables or car windows when he is displeased. He yells with his mouth full of food, which sometimes shoots out. He dramatically rolls his eyes at the very San Gabriel residents who three years ago elected him.
Now he's seeking election to a vastly more powerful post, that of Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees — the board accused of wasting tens of millions of dollars in bond money on ineptly handled campus construction.
Despite Svonkin's endorsements from dozens of Democratic politicians, in March he was forced into a May 17 runoff by Long Beach teacher and San Pedro Neighborhood Council member Lydia Gutierrez. Among San Gabriel voters, who know him best, 78 percent chose somebody other than Svonkin.
The community college election is often a yawner. But a charged debate is under way about the college board's incompetence in the wake of a Los Angeles Times series, "Billions to Spend," detailing costly fiascos under veteran trustees Mona Fields, Sylvia Scott-Hayes, Nancy Pearlman, Georgia Mercer and Kelly C. Candaele — who have spent a combined 61 years on the little-watched board.
Svonkin, who often comes across as affable and well-spoken, is backed by Democrats including U.S. Congress members Judy Chu and Henry Waxman, plus the entire L.A. City Council.
But three current and former San Gabriel Unified School District board members — Lee Freeman, Denise Menchaca and Colleen Doan — who endorsed him three years ago are urging voters not to elevate Svonkin on May 17.
Menchaca, the school board president in the small district of tree-lined streets, keeps an empty chair between Svonkin and herself on board nights due to his violent fist-pounding. Board member Doan describes Svonkin's bullying as "this jumping up and pounding and raising of his voice. It's just ongoing in closed session." Former board member Freeman calls Svonkin "the Grandstander Supreme."
Svonkin prefers to be addressed as "the Honorable Scott Svonkin," which locals say they refuse to do. The Pasadena Star-News and San Gabriel Valley Tribune called him out in an editorial: "Is he up for a seat in the House of Lords soon?"
Cheri Fortner's two boys, who attended school board meetings to earn Cub Scout merit badges, witnessed Svonkin's "arrogant behavior ... in speaking to his fellow board members — and to people," she angrily recalls.
Parent Audrey Lee was at a meeting with "a big turnout of parents who don't get involved in politics. The way he presented himself, we were appalled."
At one infamous meeting, parent Scott Bowles watched Svonkin get out a turkey sandwich with lettuce, cheese and a side of dressing. "He had his mouth so full of food that when he decided he wanted to fight with the board president and other board members, there was food falling out of his mouth," Bowles recalls. "You know when you have so much food in your mouth you stick it to one side and your cheek puffs up?"
As Svonkin talked over the board president and constituents, food fell out, Bowles says: "It was disgusting."
Suzanne Paine, ex-president of the San Gabriel Chamber of Commerce, says, "He is talking into the microphone, he is stuffing his face and chewing and eating and — everybody was just looking at everybody."
San Gabriel City Councilman Mario De La Torre felt Svonkin's antics were "embarrassing as an elected official," and told Svonkin as much.
At a Gabrielino High School ceremony where seniors were awarded scholarships from companies, Svonkin lashed out, in front of others, at invited guest Ken Tcheng, whose firm had given money. Tcheng recalls how Svonkin slammed his race for the school board, saying, "You ran a dirty campaign last time, and I'm going to do everything I can to destroy you!" Tcheng says the threat "came out of nowhere."
A mother who won't give her name says a red-faced Svonkin pounded on her minivan window as she waited to pick up kids from a mock trial at Gabrielino High School.
She was calling the kids from her cellphone to explain that she couldn't find parking. The woman, who knows Svonkin, says her first instinct when he yelled at her was, "There's a fire, someone needs help, oh my God!" Instead, she recalls him shouting, "We are trying to get people jobs here!" referring to a job fair inside.
Svonkin chuckles at claims that he's a bully: "I'm a 45-year-old, slightly overweight guy. ... Nobody would think I was a bully. People call names when they don't like what you stand for." But the Star-News editorial suggested otherwise: "For months now, San Gabriel residents have been complaining of what they see as [Svonkin's] incivility, the bullying tactics, the union shilling and the desire to get politically ahead rather than serve the parents and kids."
How did this polarizing figure become the choice of Brad Sherman, Howard Berman and Lucille Roybal-Allard? "He's got the endorsement of all the state Democrats," Freeman, a Democrat, says. "I wonder: Do they even know? When they endorse a local person for school board, do they even know anything about the guy? I don't think so."
One backer, 49th State Assembly District Rep. Mike Eng, sounds unclear on that point: "Some of that buzz, I think, came a little bit later. I know that I was one of the earlier endorsers." Of Svonkin's yelling, pounding and requests to be called "the Honorable," Eng says, "I haven't observed that. I will say that elected officials need to comport themselves with showing respect."
Svonkin has for years paid his dues within the Los Angeles County Democratic Party; his personality issues go back just as far. In 1999, when Svonkin was an aide to then–West Hollywood City Councilman Paul Koretz, Councilman Steve Martin said of him: "Svonkin, or as we like to call him, 'council member Svonkin,' is particularly disreputable at City Hall."
In 2002, county party insiders backed Svonkin as a "City Council" candidate for the Valley city that failed to materialize when voters rejected Valley secession. The Democratic group backed Svonkin again for San Gabriel school board.
In San Gabriel, Svonkin has pushed a labor union agenda, particularly a new rule that the town's school construction proceed under a union "project labor agreement." The deal created intense anger as Svonkin waged a yearlong battle for unions, leaving the board less time to address classroom improvements and a budget crisis. Others were upset that the deal squelches competition and is expected to drive up construction costs. Svonkin's campaign is dominated by money from the national Teamsters' committee, DRIVE, and other unions.
Svonkin claims on his campaign website that he currently serves "as vice president of my local school board." But that's not true. On Dec. 8, board members Menchaca, Matt Stadtler and Doan, two Democrats and one independent, stripped him of the vice presidency.
Last May, parents and critics sought to recall Svonkin, but missed getting the measure on the ballot.
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Svonkin laughs off their effort, saying, "There was no recall. It was a small group of people that made threats." Yet he created a political action committee to fight them, into which labor unions poured $10,250.
Svonkin is the favorite on May 17, due to overwhelming backing from unions and the Democratic Party.
But Joe Barrett, an activist in Sunland-Tujunga, where residents halted a Home Depot development, says Svonkin's personal issues transcend party lines. Barrett says Svonkin was a "paid shill" for the Home Depot project, and describes how Svonkin one day used his daughter — "a young girl, maybe 7 or 8" — dressing her in a Home Depot apron.
Svonkin says he has a great relationship with his kids. But Barrett says, "To parade her around like that, there is no depth to which he won't sink."