ROUND 1 IN THE FIGHT over mayoral control of the Los Angeles Unified School District wasn’t much of a contest. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has talked for nearly a year about taking over the school district, saw his candidate, Mónica García, roar into first place — less than three points shy of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.
Running a distant second was Christopher Arellano, who had taken a vocal stance against mayoral control and had been buoyed by nearly $300,000 from United Teachers Los Angeles, a foe of mayoral control and a deciding factor in most school-board elections. Arellano had been politically bloodied in the final days of the campaign, as revelations surfaced about his name change, two shoplifting convictions and a pumped-up résumé that misled voters about the extent of his educational credentials.
Foes of a mayoral takeover who had made a pitch for democracy — that is, allowing the voters, not the mayor, to select the school board — woke up Wednesday to find that the electorate wasn’t interested. Only one out of every 10 voters had even bothered to vote in District 2, which stretches from Koreatown on the west to El Sereno on the east, despite a ballot featuring five candidates.
Arellano almost certainly would have perished in the primary election without UTLA, whose rank-and-file representatives decided in the final week to stand by their candidate, working five phone banks and paying for last-minute mailers. But the backing came at a price, roiling the inner workings of UTLA, which served as Villaraigosa’s foot soldiers in last year’s mayoral election and now stands divided over how closely to stick with an ally who has made education reform his No. 1 issue.
With three months left until the June 6 runoff, the fissures within UTLA — and between the union and the mayor — could easily widen. Villaraigosa plans to unveil his takeover plan during the runoff campaign, giving each candidate a preview of the plan that will likely reach voters in 2007. Meanwhile, hard-line supporters of Arellano say privately that they are determined to find out whether UTLA president A.J. Duffy, who was lukewarm at best over Arellano’s candidacy, is a committed foe of mayoral takeover or someone willing to cut a deal down the road.
“This [runoff election] is going to bring it to a head,” said one member of UTLA’s 350-member House of Representatives, who asked for anonymity out of a fear of reprisals. “It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m against mayoral control.’ It’s another thing to 100 percent fund a candidate who decisively speaks against mayoral control.”
One day after the election, Duffy had a sharply different view, saying he had been fielding complaints for days about UTLA’s decision to stick with Arellano. In the wake of Arellano’s weak showing, Duffy promised to consult the full membership — not just its governing body — about discontinuing the endorsement. Duffy then went further, saying the union’s pro-Arellano activists should not draw a line in the sand over mayoral control and insisting that there was “absolutely no connection” between the election and a mayoral takeover.
“They don’t even get it,” said Duffy, referring to his critics within the union. “The mayor doesn’t even need the board members for mayoral control. All he needs is the [state] Assembly, which in all likelihood he probably has, and then he has a referendum. And with an 82 percent popularity poll — come on. If he puts [a ballot measure] out in the community on mayoral control, there’s a strong likelihood he would get it in a heartbeat.”
For Duffy, the biggest flashpoint in the school-board race came last week, one day before the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión broke the story that Arellano had been arrested twice for shoplifting, once in 1992 and again in 1995. Duffy and his allies went to UTLA’s House of Representatives — a group of nearly 225 union leaders — to suggest that they rescind the endorsement, only to be greeted with boos. Convinced that Arellano was the subject of a smear campaign, UTLA activists demanded that their candidate receive the opportunity to speak. Once Arellano appeared, he received a standing ovation and re-won their loyalty.
“The House of Representatives basically stuck to their guns,” said Fernando Ledezma, who serves on the union’s board of directors and is backing Arellano.
Duffy emerged the next day to restate his support for Arellano. But one day later, he openly voiced disappointment that Arellano, who spoke throughout the campaign of his double master’s degrees from USC, had in fact received neither — even though he walked in the graduation ceremony and finished the course work in one of the two degrees. Duffy said it was too late to schedule another leadership meeting but promised that the issue would be revisited if Arellano made the runoff.
Privately, Arellano supporters with UTLA were furious. Some asserted that Duffy had been trying to torpedo Arellano’s candidacy from the beginning, first by recommending that the union offer no endorsement in the school-board race, then by backing away from Arellano during a time of crisis. Duffy, in turn, said rumors on political blogs had forced him to do the responsible thing — ask the union’s lawyers to perform a detailed background check on their chosen candidate — and contended that Arellano’s biggest problem was not necessarily his criminal record, but failing to level with the union from the beginning.
BACKERS OF ARELLANO remained suspicious, saying Duffy obtained the background information from two sources with close ties to the mayor — California Teachers Association representative Don Attore, who served on Villaraigosa’s transition team, and UTLA attorney Jesus Quiñonez, a longtime personal friend of Villaraigosa who works for UTLA’s law firm, Geffner and Bush. Quiñonez is also a mayoral appointee to the board of the Metropolitan Water District, where Villaraigosa recently tried without success to install former Assemblyman Richard Katz as that agency’s CEO.
Hours before UTLA’s meeting on Arellano, Attore and Quiñonez conferred with the union’s leadership, presenting them the package on Arellano’s candidacy and criminal background. The California Teachers Association, which had sent Arellano a $50,000 check, had already decided to pull its money. UTLA activists, on the other hand, were deeply skeptical about the union’s ties to Geffner and Bush, now that the mayor was seeking passage of a municipal takeover.
On election night, Arellano emerged from days of media seclusion, showing up at a campaign party in Lincoln Heights that was attended by UTLA stalwarts, as well as lawyer and peace activist Art Goldberg — brother of Jackie, the state assemblywoman — and renters’-rights advocate Elena Popp, who is running to replace Goldberg in the state Legislature. While a DJ played reggae versions of Cher’s “Believe” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Arellano spoke in halting terms about his past, saying he is sorry about misleading voters about his academic record at USC and admitting that he put Duffy in a “tough situation.” Still, Arellano said he thought he could overcome a gap of nearly 30 percentage points, by talking about the less flattering aspects of his life.
“I’m perfectly willing to sit down with the public and say, ‘Hey, I made dumb decisions, but look what I’m doing now with my life,’ ” Arellano said. “Look how I’ve changed my life around. It’s important for our youth to know that yes, you make mistakes, but you can always do better.”
In an odd way, Arellano’s personal storyline bore eerie resemblances to the biography of the current mayor. Like Villaraigosa, Arellano was a onetime dropout who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at UCLA. Like Villaraigosa, Arellano had a brush with the law in his mid-20s, only to rebound a decade later as an organizer with UTLA. But where Villaraigosa proved a master of his own biography, shaping its unpleasant parts into tales of personal triumph, Arellano overreached with his repeated declarations that he had gone from an eighth-grade dropout to a USC master’s recipient. In fact, he had finished the course work in one degree and needed another semester to finish the other. Furthermore, Villaraigosa worked doggedly to ensure that there were no surprises left in his past; Arellano seemed uncomfortable, even on election night, with spelling out precisely why his adolescence and early adulthood had been so troubled.
Only a few miles away, Villaraigosa stood onstage at the Puente Learning Center at the election-night party for García, the candidate who secured an impressive 47.1 percent finish in the five-way primary election. The mood was ebullient, with García standing before a buoyant crowd surrounded by the city’s new political stars: Villaraigosa, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and García’s old boss — Councilman Jose Huizar. Huizar voiced some disappointment that the school-board district, which covers neighborhoods that surround downtown Los Angeles, would be without a representative for three more months. But he effusively praised Villaraigosa for wading into the public school debate.
“Let me welcome a person who’s passionate about education, who doesn’t say no when people tell him he can’t be and should not be involved in education,” said Huizar, who served on the school board for four and a half years. “I just want to say, it’s our children too.”
García dodged the question of mayoral control throughout the campaign, initially speaking against the concept but later refusing to say whether she had an opinion. And on election night, she and Arellano agreed on one thing — that the election should go well beyond the debate over mayoral control to focus on the dropout rate, classroom overcrowding and quality teachers. But García supporters also made clear that they view their candidate as unstoppable, with one privately saying UTLA could put up $1 million and still not overcome their candidate’s powerful connections and tremendous momentum.