Upsets Galore in Los Angeles Elections

Ref Rodriguez, left, and Scott Schmerelson, right, both newcomers to the LAUSD Board of Education
Ref Rodriguez, left, and Scott Schmerelson, right, both newcomers to the LAUSD Board of Education

Los Angeles yesterday elected by a big margin David Ryu as the first Asian-American member of the Los Angeles City Council since the 1990s — even though the city's establishment piled on in support of his opponent, City Hall insider Carolyn Ramsay. And the election upsets spilled over to the LAUSD school board, where incumbents Tamar Galatzan and Bennett Kayser were undone by political neophytes Scott Schmerelson and Ref Rodriguez, respectively.

School board president Richard Vladovic was the only incumbent to hold onto his LAUSD seat, in many ways the only unsurprising outcome of a municipal election that delivered a number of shockers.

What does it all mean? Here are a few bleary-eyed, post-election thoughts:

1) People do not think the LAUSD school board is doing a very good job.
Incumbents in local politics normally have an easy go of things. But between the endless battles with former Superintendent John Deasy, the iPad boondoggle, student achievement disputes and other technology woes, the public is clearly fed up with the way L.A. Unified is run. Galatzan and Kayser are about as ideologically different as two school board members could be. People aren't particularly engaged in the union-versus-reformer debate. They just look at the school district and they see a mess.

There's a bit of irony here, in that student test scores and graduation rates have been steadily improving for years. But voters don't seem to be clued into that either, or if they are, they're unmoved by it.

2) Latino voters finally captured District 5.
Latinos have long been a majority in City Council District 5, which, bizarrely, connects the Silver Lake/Los Feliz/Eagle Rock area with the Southeast cities including Cudahy, Bell and Huntington Park. But they haven't voted in very large numbers, which is why Kayser was able to win this seat in the first place. The balance has been tipped with the election of Ref Rodriguez, although it remains to be seen if this will be a permanent shift or not.

If it is permanent, that's good news for school reformers, whose ideas, for the most part, have found greater traction in Hispanic communities than in white and black ones.

3) Charter schools now run the school reform movement.
For a while, the school reformers were united by politicians like former mayors Richard Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa. That all changed when Eric Garcetti was elected mayor and decided to punt on the whole LAUSD thing. There was a big question of who, if anyone, was going to fill that power vacuum, and it turned out to be the California Charter Schools Association Advocates.

Nobody knew if this group would be any more successful than Villaraigosa had been. Well, it's off to a good start, having elected one of its own, Rodriguez, who founded PUC Schools, a chain of charter schools in working-class neighborhoods. And it defeated mortal enemy Kayser, who was the only sitting school board member to repeatedly say that there shouldn't be any charter schools in Los Angeles anymore.

And so charters appear poised to continue their expansion.

4) The teachers union can still win elections.
The teachers union, UTLA, had a mixed night. It won one and lost one. In Kayser, the union lost its strongest advocate; in Galatzan, who is also a working city attorney, it defeated its (arguably) biggest foe.

It was practically a conscious trade. In the months leading up to the general election, the teachers union pulled its money out of the Kayser-Rodriguez race to focus on beating Galatzan. Was it cutting its losses? Ambitiously aiming for a sweep? Who knows.

The teachers union appears to have been outspent in both races, but it wins elections not just with money but with boots on the ground – teachers' boots, volunteers who can be more convincing to voters than paid door-knockers. UTLA doesn't have the resources it once did, but it proved that it can still win races it really concentrates on.

5) Endorsements don't matter.
Yeah, we already knew this. But just to drive the point home: both the L.A. Times and the Daily News endorsed Galatzan and Carolyn Ramsay, and the latter was handily defeated in her City Council race against David Ryu. And guess who else endorsed Ramsay and Galatzan? Mayor Eric Garcetti. 

6) The school board gets wackier.
There's no shortage of personality on the school board, between the often- cantankerous George McKenna, the enigmatic Richard Vladovic (who easily fought off a challenger and kept his seat tonight), the boisterous Monica Garcia, the heart-on-his-sleeve Steve Zimmer and the pensive Monica Ratliff. It is a largely independent, idiosyncratic group, prone to squabbling and, at times, indecision.

That shows no sign of abating. In Schmerelson, the board will gain the first Republican in long memory to be endorsed by UTLA. What that means is anyone's guess. Rodriguez may be a calming influence, but he'll have ideas for change that others may not cotton to.

On the other hand, with John Deasy growing ever smaller in the rearview mirror, and with the economy-induced budget shortfalls and self-induced iPad troubles, maybe the school board is ready for a kumbaya moment?

Or maybe not.

David Ryu and Carolyn Ramsay
David Ryu and Carolyn Ramsay
.

7) Women are still on the outs at City Hall
Carolyn Ramsay may not be the best person to hang this warning upon, but women have been gradually squeezed out of power at Los Angeles City Hall, replaced by a large number of very similar men hailing from Sacramento, and the rest of the world is starting to notice.

Some residents of City Council District 4 who frequented the meet-ups and debates between Ramsay and Ryu mentioned, and the newspapers gave some ink to the fact that, development was on the minds of voters from Sherman Oaks to Miracle Mile. Ryu didn't have a strong platform either way, often saying he wanted to do what voters wanted — whatever that means. Ramsay, perhaps to her detriment, was even more vague. 


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