IF ONLY THERE WERE A WAY we could freeze this moment in Los Angeles politics. Just for a year, maybe two. One day after the school board election, voters finally found themselves with perhaps the perfect resolution to the 20-month, yet seemingly endless, battle between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles Unified School District. That’s because suddenly, neither side had the upper hand.
Tuesday’s election results showed that even after he poured $1.5 million into his three chosen candidates, Villaraigosa had, for the time being at least, failed to obtain a four-seat majority on the school board. Yet United Teachers Los Angeles, the employee union that spent $975,000 to preserve its own grip on L.A. Unified, also found it lacked a majority. Ah, sweet impasse!
The UTLA had three seats, compared to Villaraigosa’s two. The remaining two school board races now head to a May runoff election that will pit prosecutor Tamar Galatzan against school board member Jon Lauritzen in the San Fernando Valley and retired schools Superintendent Richard Vladovic against former school principal Neal Kleiner in the southernmost section of L.A. Unified.
Voters will have to wait two more months to see whether Villaraigosa — backed by the contributions of business leaders and real estate developers — can install a new school board that will do what a judge wouldn’t: let him run three of L.A. Unified’s low-performing high schools and maybe even remake the district’s governing structure. Villaraigosa, you may recall, failed to implement his Sacramento school-takeover bill once a Superior Court judge declared it unconstitutional.
In other words, the first round of election 2007 saw a murky, confusing campaign come to a murky, confusing end. No one seemed sure who was on which side in the school board smack-down, with Villaraigosa and the UTLA — long-standing allies going back two decades — obscuring their true allegiances and avoiding a direct confrontation in every school board race but one.
Officially, Villaraigosa had fielded three candidates — county executive Yolie Flores Aguilar on the Eastside, Vladovic in the South and Galatzan in the Valley. Yet Team Villaraigosa was also not-so-secretly rooting for a fourth contender: charter-school executive Johnathan Williams, a man Villaraigosa favored in South Los Angeles but could not endorse directly for fear of provoking a backlash from the city’s African-American political establishment.
To confuse matters further, voters who made Villaraigosa’s candidates the clear front-runners also overwhelmingly passed Charter Amendment L, a measure that creates a school board “compensation committee” — a panel designed to boost the pay of board members and nudge them toward full-time status. Villaraigosa voted for Measure L even though his own school bill clearly sought to strip the school board of its power.
If his bill is upheld by a higher court, L.A. Unified could see a day when the school board has far less authority even as it is paid, uh, considerably more. Is this the part they call reform?
Villaraigosa, for his part, said he supported Measure L because it would make it easier for the public to track and limit campaign fund-raising by school board members. Yet nothing in the measure would increase disclosure for the campaign committees that raise six-figure donations on behalf of school board candidates — groups such as the mayor’s Partnership for Better Schools.
By Monday, the mayor’s committee had dropped a whopping $1.2 million into Galatzan’s campaign, all for a post that pays $24,000 annually. That added up to roughly $95 per vote — a sum that doesn’t even count the money Galatzan spent from sources other than the mayor.
Standing outside Galatzan’s election-night party, Villaraigosa insisted that Measure L would allow him to scale back the school board’s duties, leaving most of the big decisions to L.A. Unified’s superintendent. The mayor even hinted that school board members are making too much money as it is.
“I don’t think that they should be compensated at the rate they’re currently compensated,” Villaraigosa said. “If you look at the L.A. County Board of Education, I think they get $100 or $150 per meeting. The problem with the school board is that it has been full-time.”
Yet as the ballots were being tallied, one of Villaraigosa’s own candidates signaled that she isn’t all that keen about seeing her duties disappear under a Villaraigosa scenario. Aguilar, who handily defeated middle-school teacher Bennett Kayser in the mostly Latino district stretching from Silver Lake to South Gate, said she saw no need for Villaraigosa to diminish the school board’s role now that a new slate of board members is taking office.
“I certainly don’t want those powers diminished,” Aguilar declared at her victory party.
Indeed, Aguilar seemed only partly in sync with Villaraigosa’s agenda. Aguilar said she welcomes Villaraigosa’s involvement in three low-performing high schools and promised to ask her colleagues to reconsider its legal challenge to the mayor’s bill once she takes office in July.
But Aguilar was much cooler toward one of the bill’s more vindictive provisions, which would deny school board members the ability to hire their own office staff. With an effective school board, that prerogative should be preserved, Aguilar declared.
“And if not, I’m going to raise my own money to have staff,” she said. “I need my staff. Absolutely. Because like any elected official, you need your staff that is loyal to you, that understands what your constituents need.”
Those comments drew a jab from school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who opposed the mayor’s bill and is the one incumbent who handily fended off a challenge. “You can’t have two masters,” she said. “You can’t be both for [the Villaraigosa bill] and against it.”
It just seems that things were simpler back in 1999, when the battle for the soul of L.A. Unified was a clear contest between two forces that hated each other’s guts: the UTLA and then-Mayor Richard Riordan. In that election, Riordan picked four candidates, dumped a pile of money on them and swept the teachers union’s candidates out the door. Four years later, the UTLA exacted its revenge, knocking out two of Riordan’s candidates.
These days, things are far more opaque. Once viewed as an electoral powerhouse, the UTLA settled for defensive rear-guard action this year, working to defend incumbents LaMotte and Lauritzen while staying silent in two other races. The union’s timid approach was yet more blow-back from its decision last summer to back Villaraigosa’s school bill. While UTLA’s leadership favored a backroom deal with the mayor in Sacramento, the outraged rank and file formally voted to oppose the bill, weeks after Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed it.
That leaves UTLA and Villaraigosa fighting on just one front — the upcoming runoff battle between Lauritzen and Galatzan. On Tuesday, Galatzan clearly spoke as though she had the momentum, having pulled five percentage points ahead of her opponent. “I think the voters understood that this election was about more than a new school board. This was about the future of Los Angeles,” she said.
Actually, most of the voters understood that they needed to ignore the race entirely, since only 9.3 percent of the electorate cast votes in the Galatzan race, according to preliminary figures. Still, if Galatzan wins, she will have cemented her district’s status as an arena for electoral combat. In the past eight years, UTLA-backed Jeff Horton was pushed out by Riordan-backed Caprice Young, who was turned out by UTLA-backed Lauritzen, who is now being targeted by Villaraigosa-backed Galatzan. Fortunately for the public, Measure L also imposes term limits, to make sure board members don’t stay too long.
Villaraigosa seemed to acknowledge that the public is growing tired of the continual city-school combat. The mayor said he had placed a call to Lauritzen on Election Day pledging to work with him — a bizarre move considering Villaraigosa is trying to oust him.
Lauritzen, in turn, planned to hang on to his seat even as he receives chemotherapy for the brain cancer that forced him to undergo radiation treatment last year. “He is overcoming that, just as he will overcome this election,” said Lauritzen chief of staff Ed Burke, who described Lauritzen’s cancer as being in remission.
While Villaraigosa bet the farm on Galatzan, he found himself tiptoeing around South Los Angeles, refusing to endorse African-American candidate Williams, the charter-school founder and advocate who tried to unseat LaMotte, the school board’s only black member. Indeed, each time reporters asked him, Villaraigosa insisted that he had not picked a candidate in the race.
The city’s black elected officials weren’t buying it. Councilwoman Jan Perry, one of several black leaders supporting LaMotte, accused Villaraigosa weeks ago of recruiting Williams and assembling his campaign team. After all, Williams was the mayor’s commissioner at the Department of Recreation and Parks. Villaraigosa’s political consultant Ace Smith was assigned to Williams’ campaign. And the Accelerated School, which Williams runs, was used as the backdrop for Villaraigosa’s education-themed State of the City address in 2006, where he spoke in favor of mayoral control of L.A. Unified.
U.S. Representative Maxine Waters urged Villaraigosa to stay neutral on Williams. And Councilman Bernard Parks, the former police chief who campaigned heavily for Villaraigosa in 2005, declared weeks ago that the black community would fight “tooth and nail” to protect LaMotte.
LaMotte beat Williams by a 2-1 margin. On election night, Parks argued that voters in LaMotte’s district had sent a message to the contributors “outside the community” who had bankrolled Williams — a group ranging from Riordan to Wal-Mart executives in Arkansas to Beverly Hills dowager Edith Wasserman, who gave a $100,000 contribution to the charter-school executive.
IF THE SCHOOL BOARD RACES were obscure and largely ignored, the contests for the Los Angeles City Council were straightforward and ugly. Five incumbents had no opposition, two others handily won re-election, and one former councilman — Richard Alarcón — returned to reclaim the seat he left in 1998.
In the only two contests with even a whiff of competition, the campaigns were devastatingly negative. How else to describe an election where one candidate’s head was superimposed on top of a frog, a second was made to look like Homer Simpson, and two others were accused of coddling sex offenders?
The race on the Eastside between Councilman Jose Huizar and embittered council aide Alvin Parra went negative early and often, with Parra portraying Huizar as a lazy cuss who grew bored with the job less than a year after he was elected. Huizar, in turn, described Parra as a three-time loser with nothing to offer the electorate except trash talk.
Parra did manage to rattle Huizar’s cage, forcing the councilman to hustle on such issues as a recycling facility in Boyle Heights, open space in El Sereno and development fights in Mount Washington. Huizar, a land-use lawyer known for bragging about his planning degree from Princeton University, didn’t help himself by doing illegal construction work at his El Sereno home — a screw-up from 2003 that came back to haunt him in this year’s campaign.
But the outcome was never in doubt, thanks to Huizar’s 5-1 fund-raising advantage. Huizar used his campaign bankroll of more than $300,000, amassed in large part by developers and lobbyists who will need his vote on the council’s powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee, and blew Parra out of the water on Election Day.
A similar narrative played out in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, where Alarcón handily defeated Monica Rodriguez, an executive with the California Association of Realtors. A veteran politician in the San Fernando Valley, Alarcón secured 54 percent of the vote despite a steady drumbeat of criticism over his decision to run for council just days after he won a seat in the state Assembly.
Still, victory did not come without humiliating moments. Asked to appear on the Telemundo newsmagazine En Contexto, Alarcón answered questions while sitting under a huge graphic displaying the word “¿Oportunista?”
Rodriguez hammered on Alarcón for hopping from campaign to campaign, highlighting his bids for Los Angeles mayor, state Senate and state Assembly by plastering his mug on a frog. She also produced the most blisteringly negative mailer of the 2007 election — one that linked Alarcón’s lack of commitment to his Assembly district to infidelity in his romantic life. The piece zeroed in on Alarcón’s penchant for spending campaign money on his current girlfriend, past girlfriend and ex-wife.
Privately, most council members groaned at the thought of Alarcón returning to City Hall. But in the face of the political machine assembled by Villaraigosa and Speaker Fabian Núñez, no one wanted to step out and endorse Rodriguez, leaving her to be crushed by Alarcón’s well-funded campaign. And so now the council has Alarcón to contend with once again, quite probably until 2013. Unless, of course, the voters relax term limits yet again, letting him stay even longer.