This Watchdog Can Still Bite

In an often unpredictable local election season, one thing, at least, was certain. School-board incumbent David Tokofsky would lose.

There was simply too much working against him. He was the wrong man at the wrong time, not to mention the wrong ethnicity, and a guy who made the wrong enemies.

Guess what?

Tokofsky not only won Tuesday’s lone school-board race, he plastered challenger Nellie Rios-Parra, a thoroughly credible opponent, by a margin of 63.5 percent to 36.5 percent in the unofficial returns.

Ostensibly, these results wrap up a dominating election season for the teachers union and a crunching setback for a business-backed “reform” alliance headed by former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad. The reality is more nuanced, because the number-one player, Superintendent Roy Romer, remains reasonably well-entrenched. Moreover, it isn’t exactly clear what the new teacher-backed board stands for and how much its performance will differ from that of the defeated incumbents. Ditto for Tokofsky, whose unpredictable maverick streak got so many mad at him in the first place.

Tokofsky confounded prognosticators and civic plotters all over again, winning a district that was recently gerrymandered to bring him down. His reconfigured district bends like a misshapen barbell, with one end in Los Feliz and Silver Lake and the other in heavily Latino cities such as South Gate. Tokofsky suddenly had thousands of voters he’d never represented before and an overall Latino registration well over 50 percent. The anti-Tokofsky formula was brokered by Latino activists and by forces allied with school-board President Caprice Young and former Mayor Riordan — Riordan had become disenchanted with Tokofsky.

But his opponents tripped themselves too often. The secretive style and heavy-handedness of Broad and especially Riordan made their well-intended efforts come off like meddling and self-dealing. All of which Tokofsky exploited masterfully.

“Think about what he’s doing here,” said one member of the Rios-Parra team, speaking not for attribution. “Tokofsky is putting together older whites in Eagle Rock who are fairly conservative, younger whites in Silver Lake and Los Feliz who tend to be fairly liberal, and getting enough Latino votes from all over the district to be able to survive. It’s quite a disparate coalition he’s put together.”

Tokofsky even survived the attack of the toilets. This issue was available to challengers because board members did nothing to stop the installation of modest, but private, bathrooms in their new office space. The seven bathrooms cost a total of about $100,000, and staff installed them without board review. The issue became a powerful metaphor in a district where student bathrooms are frequently unusable. The teachers union grabbed this political plunger in March and used it to flush school-board President Caprice Young out of her west San Fernando Valley seat. At the time, Riordan was enraged by what he regarded as an unfair manipulation of events.

But apparently, he also was taking notes. The Weekly has learned that Riordan quickly authorized the toilet attack on Tokofsky. “It worked against Caprice,” said one campaign aide, “so we stole it. It

wasn’t more complicated than that.”

But the message didn’t resonate with enough voters. Rios-Parra “has done nothing but mudsling,” said one 47-year-old voter, a parent in the heavily Latino city of Bell. “She has nothing good to say. She singled him out — that he had a $100,000 toilet. There are other board members. He is not the only board member that sits on it. I go with who works in our area. So far Tokofsky has done well.”

Silver Lake voters expressed similar views. “I am adverse to backing anyone who is affiliated with Riordan or Broad,” said Silver Lake homeowner David Razowsky. “In other words: big money. The toilet issue. It seemed so over the top. I am turned off from that kind of stuff.”

Tokofsky was determined not to suffer the fate of incumbent Genethia Hayes, who would have won re-election if she’d campaigned harder or if Riordan’s Coalition for Kids had spent more money on her. Tokofsky walked precincts for 10 hours on some days and cajoled the endorsement of the two Latino primary opponents who failed to make this week’s runoff. And he raised more than enough money from a who’s who of unions and business interests. He was so preoccupied with the campaign that he forgot to pay his gas bill, and he conducted at least one media interview from his un-gassed house, while carefully avoiding his wife’s fury.

Now that he’s won, she won’t have to worry for a while about the gas bill — or maybe she will. Because even though this school-board campaign cost well over a million dollars, and even though Tokofsky will oversee contracts totaling in the billions, his board salary remains a paltry $24,000 a year.

If only the private bathroom came with a double sink.

Christine Pelisek contributed to this story.

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