FOR WEEKS, IT SEEMED LIKE Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had assembled a perfect coalition to support his plan for seizing power at L.A. Unified, a harmonious group that would normally be at each other’s throats: business groups and labor unions, liberal Democrats and moderate centrists, teachers and, well, other teachers.
Last week, however, Villaraigosa took the unusual step of showing that he had indeed picked a side, that there was in fact a loser. And it turned out to be billionaire Eli Broad, the influential philanthropist who has spent years pushing for mayoral control of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Broad, who made his fortune developing the outer sprawl of Southern California, has long fancied himself something of a policy maven on public schools, telling anyone else who would listen that the mayor needs control over the school district’s budget, its curriculum and — most importantly — its salary talks with the powerful teachers union.
With all that behind-the-scenes advocacy, it wasn’t a surprise that Broad sounded a bit betrayed in his June 30 letter to Villaraigosa in which he admonished the mayor for playing footsie with the unions and reaching a compromise that allows the elected school board to keep a few duties, including contract negotiations.
No, the real stunner was Villaraigosa’s response to Broad, or rather, his nonresponse. The mayor gave Broad exactly two sentences, the type that might appear in a constituent form letter. “Thank you for your letter of June 30, 2006,” wrote Villaraigosa to Forbes magazine’s 39th richest man in America. “I look forward to a conversation wherein we can discuss your concerns.”
The words seemed a bit cold, considering the mayor’s chief of staff, Robin Kramer, counts Broad as a former boss. So does Marcus Castain, Villaraigosa’s associate director for education. The two men had not spoken since the mayor received the letter, which Broad inexplicably marked confidential — an odd move considering all correspondence with the mayor’s office are public documents.
In his letter, Broad reminded Villaraigosa that he had spent the past 10 years supporting the mayor’s career. He also noted, somewhat acidly, that the mayor missed a chance last year to support state Senator Gloria Romero’s school-reform bill, which would have allowed for complete mayoral takeover. “Unfortunately, you were not ready to support it at that time,” he wrote.
But Broad isn’t the only rich and powerful business leader to be reckoned with in Los Angeles. So Villaraigosa took his school plan, one that would allow him to veto the hiring and firing of L.A. Unified’s superintendent, to the Beverly Hills offices of Creative Artists Agency.
Villaraigosa went to CAA on Tuesday to show high-profile business leaders the outlines of his school legislation — and let potential contributors know about the mayor’s Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability, the political-action committee pushing for passage of Villaraigosa’s L.A. Unified plan and, quite possibly, the ouster of four sitting school board members who currently oppose the mayor’s plan. Although it was billed as an “open dialogue with community and business leaders,” the CAA event was closed to the public.
“It’s not a fund-raiser,” said campaign spokesman Nathan James. “It’s primarily for folks who are excited to make sure that word gets out about this reform plan.”
Invitations to the event were signed by three business leaders, one of whom is Frank Baxter, a retired investment banker who has been a huge backer of charter schools. A second is Tony Ressler, who serves with Baxter on the board of a major charter-school organization, the L.A. Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools. The prominence of both men caused foes of the bill to question whether the mayor is playing both sides of the charter school/public school divide in his push for more power at L.A. Unified.
Villaraigosa’s supporters in the business community favor charter schools, experimental campuses that operate outside of many provisions of the state’s Education Code. The mayor’s backers at United Teachers Los Angeles oppose them, saying that such schools ignore union rules and siphon off the most engaged children and parents.
The UTLA’s legislative branch voted narrowly last week to support the mayor’s bill in Sacramento, but only after union leaders said the compromise legislation would keep Villaraigosa from pursuing a plan to open 100 charter schools across L.A. Unified.
Warren Fletcher, a UTLA activist who opposes the bill, pointed out that charter-school advocates testified in Sacramento in favor of the bill. Asked whether the mayor would choose between unions and more charter schools, Fletcher responded, “Obviously, I predict we’ll get screwed over.”
With Broad potentially out of favor, the mayor’s most powerful business ally may turn out to be Tim Leiweke, president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group — a company that received nearly $270 million in city financial assistance for the construction of L.A. Live, a complex of hotels and entertainment venues being constructed next to Staples Center.
Leiweke, the third cohost of Villaraigosa’s education confab at CAA, has shown a willingness to generate five-figure checks on behalf of city ballot measures when the need arises. He is already devoting significant financial resources to another City Hall policy initiative — the City Council’s effort to roll back municipal term limits.
Broad, on the other hand, already has company, with the Valley Industry and Commerce Association voting this week to tell Villaraigosa that the teachers unions had thwarted “meaningful reform” at L.A. Unified.
VICA, the most powerful business group north of Mulholland, thanked Villaraigosa’s staff for spending so much time discussing his plan with the group. Then it lowered the boom, announcing its opposition to the bill. “VICA has no doubt that you have put a lot of thought into this bill and would have gone a different direction had circumstances allowed you to do so,” the organization wrote.
If nothing else, the letter sounded a lot nicer than the one sent by the jilted billionaire.