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The Best School Board Money Can Buy

Photo by Robert Yager

Two years ago, Richard Riordan evoked puzzlement and punditry when he vowed to become the "education mayor" of L.A. The mayor, after all, has no authority over the city school system. Bemusement only increased thereafter as Riordan, in pursuit of this goal, stumbled through a series of gaffes — alienating the school board, failing to influence top school administrators and bungling initial attempts to run a slate of school-board candidates. It was almost comical.

But then Riordan focused on what he does best: delivering the greenbacks.

And now, days before a school-board election that Riordan has shaped, Inspector Clouseau has begun to resemble Boss Tweed.

By Election Day on April 13, Riordan will have unleashed about $2 million on this year’s four school-board contests. Most of the money is from the pockets of the mayor himself and dozens of his closest rich friends and associates. In the process, he’s catapulted the $24,000-per-year, low-profile school-board posts into the political big time. And he has a realistic chance of dumping three well-entrenched incumbents, who’d be prohibitive favorites in a normal election year. The three Riordan-backed challengers are Mike Lansing, Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes. The mayor also supports incumbent David Tokofsky.

Incumbent Jeff Horton, stung by the mayor’s opposition, has characterized Riordan’s campaign as a "naked power grab," an effort to seat board members who will do his bidding. What this bidding would amount to isn’t clear — to Horton or anyone else. Riordan has never articulated a specific agenda for the school district, and by all appearances he doesn’t have one. Nor does his "slate" collectively offer a plan. For that matter, it’s not at all certain that Rior-dan’s favored candidates would necessarily do his bidding when push comes to shove.

As a big-city mayor, Riordan is not alone in stage-managing a dramatic reform drive. Across the nation, a number of mayors have been asked, or have taken the initiative, to wrest from school boards the job of reforming inner-city education. The idea took root in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley appoints both the chief executive officer and the school-board president — courtesy of an emergency reform plan approved by the Illinois legislature. The Ohio legislature later gave similar authority to the mayor of Cleveland, and late last month, Michigan lawmakers put Detroit’s mayor in charge of those schools. Closer to home, in Oakland, newly elected Mayor Jerry Brown has found a legislative sponsor for a bill that also would give him more control of the local schools.

"The mayor very much would like to be the Richard Daley of Los Angeles," noted one district insider who’s acquainted with Riordan. "He thinks he can do a better job of breaking through union and bureaucratic log jams."

Riordan’s own involvement with public schools predates his rise to mayor. He donated millions to the school district, and also fostered the school district’s LEARN reform project. With student performance still trailing most of the nation, and a divided school board that failed to perceive the situation as a crisis, Riordan decided instead to capitalize an election. His first plan — a mayoral task force that would endorse school-board candidates — fell apart before it was even fully organized. In the wake of this embarrassment, Riordan and his advisers decided to keep it simple: The mayor himself would endorse candidates and lead the fund-raising on their behalf.

Behind the scenes, Riordan’s team includes top political consultant Bill Carrick and local kingmaker Bill Wardlaw, who took part both in strategy meetings with Rior-dan and in the discussions about who would carry the Riordan banner. It was attorney Wardlaw who chaired Bill Clinton’s successful California campaign, and it was Wardlaw who masterminded Riordan’s own ascent to the mayor’s office. In other words, the same powerbroker who helped bring you a president and a mayor is now, at the mayor’s request, turning his attention to the school board.

This is Riordan’s version of civic leadership and good government; he’s found four people he likes — and he intends to put them on the school board, to shake up the status quo in a school system he regards as a catastrophe.

"At first, I thought it was a little strange that Richard Riordan kept talking about schools — that was not part of his job description," noted Deputy City Controller Timothy Lynch, a liberal Democrat not regarded as a Riordan enthusiast. "But then, the mayor in Chicago brought about a vast improvement in those schools. And look at what Jerry Brown is doing in Oakland.

"I have trouble thinking there’s anything nefarious about this. There’s no self-enrichment here. And this is a system that really needs major surgery. I’ve been sold on the idea that the mayor should have something to say about it. So should the City Council. So should the county Board of Supervisors. Everyone should be involved."

Still, Riordan’s brand of do-gooding makes many uneasy. In essence, Riordan has constructed a corporate-backed political machine for this contest, selecting candidates and then providing enough funding to make them front-runners. Two slate members, Lansing and Young, wouldn’t even be in the race were it not for the mayor; nor would either stand a chance of getting elected.

"I don’t dismiss or disbelieve that the mayor cares about kids," said Yolie Flores Aguilar, who is running a long-shot campaign in the 5th District against David Tokofsky, the only incumbent Riordan has endorsed. "Mayor Riordan has stood out in front on the issue of children, and I commend him for that. But I don’t think public education should ever be for sale. How he has invested in one race and tipped the scale so much — that to me is like buying a candidate. I don’t think this was the right way, or the most honest way."

The obvious yardstick to measure Riordan’s impact is to follow the money. As of April 6, school-board candidates had reported some $2.8 million in contributions, an astonishing amount for contests once funded more along the lines of a PTA bake sale. Just two years ago, school-board member Vickie Castro did not even have to face an opponent. Winning a contested race generally cost from $80,000 to $175,000. This time around, Caprice Young is expected to spend upwards of $600,000. Riordan candidates will outspend opponents by margins of 2 to 1, or even 3 to 1.

It’s not that the targeted incumbents can’t raise money; they’re raising more than ever. It’s just that Riordan has trumped their efforts, entirely reversing the conventional wisdom that incumbents get the cash.

Much of the Riordan aid has come through Coalition for Kids, a political-action committee established by the mayor. On February 25, Riordan’s wife, Nancy Daly, reported spending more than $20,000 to host a fund-raiser at the Riordans’ Brentwood home. The $1,000-a-plate dinner raised more than $200,000.

On the other end of the pipeline, South Bay candidate Mike Lansing, for example, had received a staggering $441,311 in assistance from the coalition by March 30, money used to pay for mailers, surveys, a phone-bank operation and something unheard of in past school-board campaigns: television advertising. Lansing, who is trying to unseat incumbent George Kiriyama, received a comparatively modest $39,000 from other sources, and much of that was from Riordan-inspired contributors who chose to give directly to Lansing rather than to the coalition. The picture is almost exactly the same for Caprice Young, who is challenging incumbent Horton. Expect all these numbers to rise markedly by Election Day.

"Riordan has definitely upped the ante, there’s no doubt about it," said Tokofsky campaign consultant Sue Burnside. "And when you take the Riordan money away from Lansing and Young, they’re not viable. It doesn’t mean they’re not viable as school-board members. It just means they couldn’t run a campaign."

Beyond that, the mayor’s team has virtually taken over the campaigns of newcomers Young and Lansing; less control is exerted over Hayes and Tokofsky, who are more experienced in electoral wars.

Veteran district observers can only shake their heads in dismay. "I think we’ve reached a zenith in the politicization of this school district," said Eli Brent, head of the district’s administrators union. "It almost smacks of the old Kelly or Daley machines. It’s like we’re having a love affair with that type of ward politics."

One senior district official couldn’t resist giving in to cynicism. "I don’t know that the mayor’s candidates will be any different than the ones we have now," he said, "except they will be indebted to the mayor. If we talk about changing the nature of the school board, this won’t do it." The administrator declined to give his name; after all, the mayor’s slate may win.

 

The harshest reaction to Riordan’s machinations comes from the 1st District, where two-term incumbent Barbara Bou-dreaux, a retired elementary school principal, is opposing civil rights activist Genethia Hayes to represent South-Central Los Angeles. Boudreaux has been joined by wealthy black developer and activist Danny Bakewell, among others, in characterizing Riordan’s involvement as racist "plantation politics" pitting one African-American woman against another.

This view of Riordan was articulated in an October article in The Sentinel, a weekly that mainly serves the city’s black community. "Master has named the choice ‘he’ sees fit to back," wrote syndicated columnist A. Asadullah Samad. "The other highly offensive part of this little package is that a highly sophisticated player in the community arena [Hayes] has allowed herself to be played into this game of divide and conquer." To Samad (who has since joined the Boudreaux campaign), "the mayor is seeking to scapegoat certain board members for representing the interest of their constituencies that conflict with his (or his constituency’s interest) so he’s looking to buy them out of office. How so? By funding candidates against them. You offer a Negro money, and they will go against the interest of the community."

The reasoning sounds anachronistic in a district where most of the students — the proper focus of district efforts — are Latino. But elderly black voters remain the largest voting bloc, and Samad’s conjecture resonates strongly among residents who remember legal segregation, and have yet to see their neighborhoods escape poverty and crime.

The Uncle Tom mantle, however, hardly fits the independent-minded Hayes, who planned her run against Boudreaux before Riordan decided to support her. Hayes, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — a veteran civil rights watchdog — has a long history of community and school involvement. But nothing is going to stop Bou-dreaux, scrambling to overcome the Riordan money factor, from playing the race card against Hayes. The question is whether Riordan’s money will make up for the damage-by-association.

Riordan made matters worse for Hayes by endorsing her before she had fully launched her bid on her own. Hayes hopes that enough black voters will conclude that Boudreaux’s circle-the-wagons politics are mainly a shield for her own ineffectiveness.

 

Incumbent Jeff Horton has no race card to play in the 3rd District, which includes Echo Park, Silver Lake, Hollywood and the Wilshire corridor. But like Boudreaux, he’s been pressed into desperate countermeasures by the influx of Riordan dollars working against him. In the most discomfiting episode, Horton, as well as Bou-dreaux, attended a breakfast meeting with an out-of-town textbook marketer that resulted in each candidate receiving $10,000 in campaign contributions. Ostensibly, the contributions were made to recognize those board members’ support of bilingual education — the marketer works for a company that publishes bilingual materials. The connection to the campaign is a curious one, especially given that Boudreaux is not, in fact, a noted supporter of bilingual programs.

But the most embarrassing part was the revelation, in a front-page L.A. Times story, that the meeting had been arranged by lobbyist-developer Art Gastelum, a partner in the team building the $200 million Belmont Learning Complex. Horton and Boudreaux have been unflagging supporters of the project, even as its costs escalated and conflicts of interest emerged among members of the private development team and school-district consultants.

Thus, Gastelum’s involvement in the campaign solicitations, while legal, looks like payback. Gastelum still has a lot at stake, namely, a projected $1.2 million management fee, if his version of a plan goes through, for joint use of the new school’s recreational facilities by the city and the school district. (Horton campaign consultant Parke Skelton insisted that Horton had no advance knowledge that Gastelum would be at the meeting and presumed that Gastelum was merely acting as a lobbyist for the publisher: "It never occurred to us that this was going to be some big Belmont scandal story.")

After the Times story, Horton refunded the contribution, but the damage had been done to Horton’s reputation for integrity, which had never before been challenged, even by critics. Boudreaux, by the way, did not return the money. "Why should she?" said Boudreaux campaign manager Jewett Walker. "Let the chips fall where they may."

Of course, it’s almost impossible to puzzle through all the potential influence-peddling on the other side. Only time will sort out who was trying to buy good will with the mayor by supporting his pet proj-ect at the school district — or to what end. Candidates from the Riordan slate don’t bother to mask the mayor’s influence. As former Assistant Deputy Mayor Caprice Young tells it, Riordan first called her in November 1998, for suggestions on whom to draft for a school-board race. "What about me?" replied Young, who worked in the Mayor’s Office from 1994 through early 1997. Riordan’s support was not automatic; Young had to make a case for herself. But once she had won over Riordan — and Riordan alone — she was an instant player. Young, 33, concedes her inexperience in education, but insists the board will benefit from her knowledge of financial matters and computer technology.

The 51-year-old Horton, by contrast, paid his dues in a more conventional manner. A longtime district teacher, he ran for the school board after building a political base through years of activism in left-wing causes, as well as in the teachers union. He also served as a deputy to then-school-board-member Jackie Goldberg.

As a district trustee, Horton has been the school board’s most consistent and passionate supporter of the LEARN school-reform effort, a project long favored and supported by the mayor. That’s why Horton’s sense of betrayal over being abandoned by the mayor is almost palpable. In recognition of Horton’s contribution, LEARN president Mike Roos, a staunch Riordan ally, broke with Riordan to endorse Horton.

Horton stood no chance with the mayor himself. "Jeff was never under consideration, as far as I know," said one well-placed source in the mayor’s camp, who seemed incredulous at the thought of Riordan supporting Horton. This campaign aide recounted, as evidence, a tale about a meeting a couple of years back between a senior Riordan aide and Horton — then the school-board president — over conditions for the mayor’s support of a school-bond proposal. "Jeff gave her some speech back about the mayor being an elitist and not really caring about kids," said the source. "Horton should be the least surprised person in Los Angeles that he’s not being supported by the mayor."

There are larger issues than personal pique here, including Horton’s support of the spendthrift Belmont complex and his early failure to push for an inspector general to monitor district expenditures. Still, Horton’s case illustrates that, all of a sudden, getting along with Mayor Riordan may be what mostly matters.

 

Yolie Flores Aguilar discovered much the same reality as she geared up her run against David Tokofsky, the only incumbent endorsed by Riordan. At the time, Riordan was wavering — over his doubts about Tokofsky’s ability to lead school reform. And although he admired Tokofsky’s drive and intellect, the mayor wondered whether he should support any incumbent. Searching for an alternative, Riordan contacted a number of potential challengers, including Yvonne Chan, a charismatic principal who manages a district-sponsored charter school in the San Fernando Valley. Chan, and others, turned him down.

But the mayor never met with Flores Aguilar, one of the city’s best-known advocates and advisers for child-care programs, with experience in both the public and private sectors. She’s also an appointed board member of the L.A. County Office of Education, a $523-million-per-year operation that offers staff training and financial oversight for county school systems.

In this instance, too, the determining factor could well have been past personal history with Riordan. In 1996, Flores Aguilar, then a city staffer, was a finalist to head the city’s Department for Children, Youth and Their Families. Riordan, however, had his own candidate in mind, child advocate Sally Thompson, whose husband, Mike, had earlier been appointed by Riordan as director of the city’s Criminal Justice Planning Office. When Riordan reopened the civil-service procedure to let in Thompson, City Councilman Mike Hernandez issued a challenge, questioning why a strong Latino candidate was being passed over for an Anglo who hadn’t even taken part in the original selection process. "From my perspective, this man has a terrible track record when it comes to appointing Latinos to positions of authority in L.A.," explained Hernandez in an interview last week.

At this point, Flores Aguilar could have helped Riordan by bowing out. As Hernandez noted, "Yolie refused to step down as a candidate."

After several months, Hernandez conceded the battle to Riordan, but sources in the Tokofsky and Riordan camps suggest that the incident may have soured Riordan on Flores Aguilar.

For his part, Tokofsky quickly recognized that the mayor’s support was pivotal, and he determined to get it. Over several months, he met repeatedly with corporate and academic leaders of the LEARN reform effort, as well as with the mayor and his advisers. He made the case that he had tried to spearhead reform at L.A. Unified, but that too often he simply didn’t have the votes. Ultimately, Riordan was won over.

This support is crucial for Tokofsky, an Anglo running in a district that was carved out with the intent of electing a Latino representative. Four years ago, in his first bid for office, Tokofsky prevailed in a run-off against Latino parent volunteer Lucia Rivera by only 76 votes.

Flores Aguilar is, by many counts, a stronger opponent than Rivera, and, for the first time, a majority of the voters in the 5th District — which stretches from the east Valley across Eagle Rock, Mount Washington and East L.A. — are Latino. Tokofsky, however, can counter with endorsements from some key Latino politicians and funding from the teachers union. He’s not getting an equal share of Riordan dollars — only one-tenth of what Lansing and Young are seeing — partly because his jigsaw district doesn’t lend itself to a cable-TV buy, partly because the mayor is gambling on Tokofsky to carry his own weight. Tokofsky benefited from the Riordan endorsement regardless. At the very least, he kept a huge bankroll out of the hands of his challenger.

 

One of the many ironies of the campaign is that the Riordan ticket includes two candidates — Hayes and Tokofsky — who are endorsed by the teachers union. More than a year ago, when Riordan and his allies first turned their attention to the school-board elections, one of the main topics of discussion was undercutting the influence of the teachers union in elections. Over time, the teachers union had become the rainmaker of school-board politics — because it spent the most money on the elections, and because voters trusted the teachers’ endorsements.

But in recent times, critics have accused the union of pushing the school board to overemphasize job security — i.e., protect bad teachers — and higher salaries.

Somehow these issues have slipped to the sidelines. The teachers union is not endorsing in the Young-Horton race, and only opposes Riordan in Lansing’s campaign to topple incumbent George Kiriyama, whose 7th District encompasses the southernmost portion of the school system, including San Pedro. Kiriyama, a retired adult-school principal, won his first term without the support of the teachers union, but he’s since locked arms with union leaders. From its perspective, the union is largely pleased with Kiriyama’s voting record; from Kiriyama’s standpoint, union support is mandatory to offset Riordan dollars.

Kiriyama’s challenger, like Caprice Young, is a Riordan-created candidate. Mike Lansing, the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of San Pedro, had no plans to run for the school board, and turned Riordan down twice. He felt obligated, he explained, to stick instead with the Boys and Girls Club, which is deep into a major fund-raising and expansion effort. He changed his mind after the club’s board of directors urged him to accept Riordan’s draft.

Also like Young, Lansing, 42, was not previously involved much in school-district matters, although he was active in organizing youth programs in connection with the local L.A. City Council office. And he also has 17 years combined experience as a teacher and administrator at private schools.

 

All told, the Riordan ticket is a study in contradictions. The mayor opposes Horton, the staunchest supporter of a school-reform program the mayor helped launch. And although Riordan allies fault the school board for micromanaging the school system, he supports the board member (Tokofsky) who’s most often accused of micromanagement. Despite misgivings over the role of the teachers union, Riordan opposes the inveterate foe (Boudreaux) of the teachers union, a person of whom Riordan thought well enough in the past to appoint him to city commissions. And although Rior-dan has talked of throwing out the incumbents, his ticket includes one.

It’s tempting to cast these contradictions as more evidence of Riordan’s well-documented fumbling on school issues. This is the same mayor who needlessly alienated the school board by saying its members lacked the "mental equipment" to do the job, the same man who failed to win any authority over the school district through the recent rewriting of the city’s governing charter — a process he also spurred with his checkbook.

And yet his fund-raising has made a difference — and it could make the key difference. Moreover, the mayor has somehow settled on candidates who’ve won editorial endorsements from the right-leaning Daily News, the centrist L.A. Times and the left-of-center L.A. Weekly. For the moment, all the snickering about the city’s self-proclaimed education mayor has stopped.