Correction: The results of this race are still to close to call.
It is truly a curiosity of the June 5 primary that an obscure California state Assembly race in the San Fernando Valley has become a proxy war over which wing of the Democratic Party controls school reform in America.
"This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party," says Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution and a former aide to President Bill Clinton, "defining what it means to be progressive when it comes to education."
Brian Johnson, 34, a former Teach for America educator, now executive director of Larchmont Charter Schools, is running in state Assembly District 46 in the Valley. He's been endorsed by several education-reform advocacy groups, including Ed Voice in Sacramento and Democrats for School Reform, a national group made up of numerous heavy-hitter Democrats.
The latter, which goes by DFER, incurred the wrath of Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party and vice chair of the California Democratic Party, for using "Democrats" in its name. Bauman mailed the Democrats for Education Reform a curt cease-and-desist letter demanding that it stop using "Democrat."
"Use of the name of the Democratic Party, and any variations thereof, such as 'Democratic' or 'Democrat,' is in derogation of the Democratic Party's common-law trademark in its name," Bauman's letter states.
It goes on, "The Democrats for Education Reform's use of this trademarked name without the authorization and consent of the LACDP or any other chartering entity is legally sanctionable."
Gloria Romero is tough — she was the first woman Senate majority leader in the California Legislature, a post she held for eight years. She's also California state director of DFER and considers herself a friend of Bauman's. They've supported each other in elections. She's been to Bauman's home.
When Romero read Bauman's threatening letter, she was flabbergasted.
Why hadn't he simply called her? And since when did Bauman own the copyright to the word Democrat? "That would be like if Catholics for Choice had to get permission from the pope," Romero says.
They don't, Romero says, and besides, "Eric's not the Pope."
Romero's Sacramento lawyer, Mark Leonard, has told her there is no legal basis for Bauman's claim. She wants a retraction.
This isn't the first cease-and-desist letter fired off by Bauman. He sent one to the Hollywood and Highlands Democratic Club, a modest outfit run by outspoken LGBT activist Miki Jackson and Metro/City Hall gadfly John Walsh. Jackson and Walsh mocked Bauman on their website and jokingly changed the name to "Hollywood and Highlands democratic club," with a small "d."
Bauman let the matter rest.
"I try to protect the Democratic brand," Bauman says. "It is really about making sure voters don't get fooled."
But Brian Johnson is a bigger problem for Bauman than the Hollywood club was. Johnson's mailers tout him as endorsed by Democrats for School Reform, and his views on how to fix the schools — like those of Romero — are at great odds with status quo Democrats within the party's hierarchy.
The party hierarchy is threatened by charter schools, whose teachers often are nonunion and whose rules often hold teachers accountable for their students' performance — ideas hotly opposed by the California Teachers Association, the most prolific donor to California Democrats.
Bauman says voters might wrongly think Johnson is endorsed by the Democratic Party if DFER keeps using "Democrat" in its name. Johnson finds this absurd. "I have knocked on more than 3,500 doors, and I've not heard from a single voter that they're confused about this," Johnson says.
But Bauman insists, "I look at political mail every day of my life. Stylistically, it's trying to infer that this candidate has the support of the Democratic Party."
"There's no logic to Eric's ranting," retorts Harvey Englander, political consultant to Johnson and himself a longtime Democrat. "Eric's doing the bidding of someone — who, I don't know."
Romero thinks Bauman's "political grandstanding" is being staged for the benefit of one of the wealthiest, most aggressive Democratic special interests in the nation. "Eric has decided to shill for the special interests that back the party," she says. She means the CTA and United Teachers of L.A.
The CTA is clearly worried about Johnson, who oversees one of the top schools in L.A., Larchmont Charter School. The school rates a 10, the highest in a statewide "similar schools" rankings of schools with identical demographics. CTA doesn't want Johnson's reform ideas getting a toehold in the Legislature, where former senator Romero caused the CTA enormous grief by getting the Parent Trigger law passed.
So CTA is bashing Johnson as a tool of rich, out-of-state donors who "support school vouchers and privatization of our public schools." One of CTA's mailers cites an L.A. Weekly article, "Getting Your Child on the List," which reported that Larchmont Charter School was among several charters that gave admissions preference to children of "founding" parents who donated money or time after the school was founded.
CTA spokeswoman Becky Zoglman says the race "really does set up the different values within public education."
In response, Ed Voice and the Charter Schools Association are running an expensive, independent campaign for Johnson. But their deep pockets, funded by backers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, probably won't match CTA's huge cash infusions.
"Honestly, it puzzles me," Johnson says of CTA's fury. "[We] agree on 90 percent of the issues, like smaller class sizes and better pay for teachers. If there are just one or two key issues that you disagree with the CTA, that troubles them."
The Democratic Party and CTA have fought reforms such as making it easier to fire incompetent or outrageously behaving teachers. While open to modest reforms, Bauman and the CTA have essentially become conservative forces, arguing against systemic changes that many progressives and parents now demand.
Washington is tilting toward parents and away from the CTA. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocate for more charter schools and merit pay. Ben Austin says the California Parent Trigger law, which is spreading around the country, wouldn't have been possible without Obama's policies.
Romero declares that Bauman "may as well send a cease-and-desist letter to President Obama, since we share the same education platform."
Englander complains, "There are some people within the Democratic Party who think this is still 1950 and that parents shouldn't be more involved, and teachers shouldn't be held accountable."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The party has not endorsed anyone in Assembly District 46, but many believe Johnson and Adrin Nazarian, chief of staff to L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian, will win the top two spots June 5.
If so, their runoff could fully expose a historic rift between the teachers unions and progressive Democratic activists. Republican Party state Chairman Tom Del Beccaro predicts, almost gleefully, "This is a preview of what we're going to see over the next decade in California."
Bauman downplays the battle, saying that teachers unions are "not 100 percent right all the time — but they're right a lot. And making them the bogeyman is not fair. ... We're doing this not just because we're a group of dinosaurs but because we have something important and precious that we're trying to protect."
Bauman is "considering what our next legal steps are" to stop DFER from using the D-word. Romero responds, "We're not gonna take this lightly. We're standing up to the schoolyard bullies."