Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is not a guy who takes no for an answer. He pushed hard for passage of a bill in Sacramento to strip the school board of most of its power. Then he convinced business leaders to give him money to defend that bill in court, where a judge struck it down.
So it’s not hard to imagine the squeeze felt by the city’s developers, business leaders and Hollywood moguls as Villaraigosa pursues his latest education strategy — grabbing control of the school board. In one-on-one phone calls, the mayor has been asking for five- and six-figure contributions to his Partnership for Better Schools, the committee seeking majority control of the school board.
Villaraigosa’s committee collected a quarter of a million dollars per week during the first six weeks of 2007, much of it from real estate companies that will need his support in the coming year. Some responded to the mayor’s pitch by going beyond Villaraigosa’s committee and giving big sums directly to his three candidates.
Villaraigosa’s slate of candidates secured a combined $30,000 from Jim Thomas, the developer pushing a massive expansion at Universal Studios. That project, which has been welcomed enthusiastically by the mayor, will put 2,900 new homes and more than 1 million square feet of new facilities near a subway station — and the already congested 101 freeway. Neither can happen, however, without city officials, not to mention the mayor’s appointees at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“Voters need to know that these campaigns are being funded by people who have ulterior motives,” said political consultant John Shallman, who represents school board member Jon Lauritzen, a candidate targeted by Villaraigosa in the San Fernando Valley. “The [contributors’] interest is not in improving the quality of instruction at the local campuses. The interest is keeping that relationship with the mayor.”
Villaraigosa’s political consultant Parke Skelton disagreed, saying every donor to the mayor’s effort wants to reform the district. “[Contributors] give where they have a desire to give,” Skelton said. “I don’t think there’s any problem at all for them in saying no if they don’t support the activity.”
The list of contributions goes deeper. Villaraigosa picked up $50,000 from Continental Development, which plans to build 375 condos on Santa Monica Boulevard — and has a zoning hearing on its project next week. The mayor scored $100,000 from developers at Astani Enterprises, which is building high-rise condo projects in downtown Los Angeles. And he took $100,000 from the J.H. Snyder Company, which gave half the money to the mayor’s school board committee and the other half to the committee trying to defend Villaraigosa’s ill-fated school bill in court.
At their last meeting, Villaraigosa’s appointees at the Community Redevelopment Agency discussed two different locations in the San Fernando Valley where Snyder has development plans — Noho Commons in North Hollywood and the Valley Plaza mall on Laurel Canyon Boulevard. At the same meeting, the agency also went behind closed doors to discuss a lawsuit filed against it by Mani Brothers — another $50,000 Villaraigosa contributor.
Representatives of school board candidate Tamar Galatzan defended the avalanche of contributions from Villaraigosa, saying they don’t check to see which donor is giving to the mayor. “Our concern is covering our campaign budget, and so anything the mayor can do to augment our campaign, we’re thrilled,” said Galatzan spokeswoman Samantha Stevens, whose candidate is seeking to unseat Lauritzen. “I don’t have to know how he’s doing it or where it’s coming from.”
By now, the mayor’s two school campaigns — one supporting his Sacramento bill, the other backing his candidates — have collected $125,000 from Anschutz Entertainment Group. AEG received $270 million in financial help from the city for its L.A. Live project, which includes a 55-story hotel.
The mayor’s committees also amassed a cool $1 million from Jerry Perenchio, the Republican billionaire whose lavish spending is all over the political spectrum. (The longtime owner of Spanish-language television station Univision, Perenchio spent $1.5 million — and gave free airtime — to the effort to defeat a 1998 initiative prohibiting bilingual education in California, but it passed with strong voter backing. Eight years later, he and his wife poured $4.9 million toward the re-election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Still, even the Galatzan campaign acknowledged that the deluge of money is an awkward experience. The campaign had collected $558,000 from the mayor’s committee by February 17, the deadline for the first reporting period. Within 10 days, Galatzan had received another $311,000. “Every morning I get up and see, is there going to be another donation?” said Stevens. “Frankly, it just keeps coming in.”
The school board fund-raising frenzy easily rivals the effort waged in 1999 by former mayor Richard Riordan, whose Coalition for Kids spent $2.3 million to elect four school board candidates — and ended a long reign of school board control by candidates who had been selected and financially backed by the teachers union. Two of Riordan’s winning candidates were swept out four years later, when they became targets of an equally expensive campaign by United Teachers Los Angeles.
This year, the union has already spent a combined $925,000 on behalf of its two candidates, Lauritzen and school board member Marguerite LaMotte.
The free-for-all could come to an end — sort of — after Tuesday’s election, if voters approve Proposition L. That measure would force school board members to face the same contribution limits as the Los Angeles City Council but would not affect huge, so-called “independent expenditures.”
The mayor and the union would still be free to spend exorbitant sums on school board candidates. Only next time around, the candidates themselves will be left out of the loop — until after the vast sums of special-interest money are spent.