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All LAUSD school board candidates agree on the undeniable importance of the Latino vote

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 1, 2017

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CHIRLA members march Monday on May Day in support of immigrant rights. (Courtesy: Parent Revolution)

The strength of Los Angeles’ Latino community blazed through city streets on Monday as 100,000 people marched to support immigrants’ rights and other causes including public education.

With the LA Unified school board runoff just two weeks away, all four of the candidates acknowledge how important the Latino community’s support is in a district that is 74 percent Latino but where only three of the seven elected school board members have Latino roots.

“You can’t have a conversation about how to improve LA Unified schools without having the Latino community in the room,” said Nick Melvoin, who is looking to unseat school board President Steve Zimmer in the May 16 election.

The two candidates vying for the open seat in the San Fernando Valley are both Latina. Imelda Padilla and Kelly Gonez recognize that the Latino vote is extremely important in their District 6, where the constituency is overwhelmingly Latino. In District 4, which has the smallest Latino percentage, both candidates said Latino support is essential to serve the entire district.

Antonio González, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and an expert on the Latino vote, explained that for a candidate it’s not enough to have an endorsement from respected Latino groups. They need to “get them all united” in order to make a difference in their favor.

“If the support a candidate gets is divided among Latino organizations, then it doesn’t really make a difference,” he said.

González explained why District 6, along with districts 2 and 5, are areas where a candidate seeking a school board seat cannot overlook the Latino vote.

“In terms of who is elected in a Latino majority school district, the Latino vote obviously decides who’s going to be the winner candidate. Latinos control at least maybe three of the districts,” González said. “In these districts, Latinos have decided who they wanted to be represented by. That’s the case with Mónica García and Ref Rodríguez.”

He noted that even when data cannot show who exactly Latinos voted for in past elections, the evidence is obvious. He said that the election of Mónica García is a good example, because her district is majority Latino and she got over 70 percent of the votes in 2006.

As a first-generation Latina, Padilla said the support of her community is “extremely important.” “In scale from 1 to 10 I’d say it’s 11,” she said.

The most recent demographics for Board District 6 show that over 87 percent of students there are Latinos.

According to Padilla, whose parents are from Jalisco, México, most parents in Board District 6 schools speak Spanish as their first language. During an interview, she switched from English to Spanish to demonstrate her bilingual skills. She said that for her speaking the same language as the majority of the families she wants to represent is very important. “I was able to maintain my Spanish because my father never learned English.”

Her opponent, Kelly Gonez, also a first-generation Latina, said, “Latino involvement is important not just in this race, but in races across the country,” she said in a statement. “Now, more than ever, it is critical to make our voices heard — through voting and running for office. We need to protect and defend our community. As a Latina and first-generation American, I’m proud to have built a diverse coalition of support that includes great leaders in our Latino community.”

Gonez’s Latino heritage comes from her mother, who is an immigrant from Peru. She speaks Spanish, not fluently, but she said she is able to communicate with the parents of her students. As the daughter of an immigrant, she said she feels the pressure to make her family’s sacrifice worth it.

Gonez has been endorsed by some prominent Latinos including former board member Yolie Flores, former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, current District 6 board member Mónica Ratliff, and District 5 board member Ref Rodríguez. But Padilla has received endorsements from top Latino elected officials such as California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Assemblyman Raúl Bocanegra, and Congressman Tony Cárdenas, and from influential unions among Latinos including SEIU Local 99 and UTLA, which are active in supporting the Latino immigrant community.

Being a Latino candidate in a majority Latino district is definitely an advantage but not a guarantee of receiving overwhelming Latino support, González said.

“Latinos throw aside ethnicity if they see that a candidate is not viable,” González said. “They value more the political party, the endorsements from other Latino elected officials and groups. If a Latino candidate doesn’t have all these factors in their favor, then ethnicity doesn’t matter.”

Even Latino media is not always in support of a Latino candidate. That was the case last fall when the leading Spanish-language daily newspaper La Opinión opted to endorse Kamala Harris over Latina Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez for U.S. Senate.

“We take very seriously those kinds of decisions and we don’t feel committed to a particular candidate just because he or she is Latino,” said La Opinión’s executive editor, Gabriel Lerner. “What we care about is that they work in the best interest of our community. We don’t really care if they’re Mexican, Argentinian, or Salvadoran, or not, as long as they represent well our people.”

According to González, La Opinión’s endorsements have informed and influenced Spanish-speaking Latinos. In 2013, La Opinión gave its endorsement to Mónica García when she ran for re-election in District 2 board. In District 4, it endorsed Kate Anderson, a pro-reform candidate, over Zimmer.

Lerner confirmed that La Opinión will not issue any endorsement in the school board election. He explained that La Opinión focuses on parents and their needs rather than politics.

Similarly, the most-watched Spanish-language TV channel in Los Angeles, Univision 34’s news department, won’t endorse any of the candidates, as it does not endorse in any elections. However, coverage of the elections, particularly the Los Angeles school board race, is important for the viewers as many Latino families are affected by the results, said the station in a statement.

In District 4, while neither candidate is Latino, both are aware of the value of the Latino community’s support not only during the electoral race but in order to deliver results for the entire school district.

Zimmer has received endorsements from State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and County Supervisor and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solís, but maybe one of the most meaningful is the one he received from the immigrant rights organization CHIRLA — one of the organizers of Monday’s May Day protests — particularly  since the topic of immigration has become so pressing this year for the Latino community across the nation. Zimmer has been a staunch advocate of immigrants and has worked on the local, state and federal level to oppose policies of the Trump administration.

“I’m very proud. I have been honored to be able to work with CHIRLA for so many years. Since 1994 is when we started to work together while organizing against Proposition 187. The immigrant rights work that I have done in the board is really a continuation of the immigrant rights work I was doing as a teacher and as a counselor back then,” he said.

“To have CHIRLA endorse the work I have done at the board, and the work I have done through my career, the kind of partnership that we have, is very meaningful for me today,” Zimmer said. “We need to make sure all recent immigrant families, our English learners, feel welcomed and valued at our schools. That’s primary. Also, in terms of gentrification, we need to make sure they’re not pushed out from our communities.”

“Now is the time to elect the strongest leaders possible — people with experience, wisdom, and commitment at all levels of government to fight the current administration head on,” Angelica Salas, CHIRLA Action Fund’s board chair, said in a statement. “Mr. Zimmer is a lifetime immigrant community champion, and the CHIRLA Action Fund is proud to support his bid to lead our schools.”

Zimmer also has the endorsement of SEIU Local 99, which represents cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and other school workers, many of them Latinos.

“As parents of LAUSD students, SEIU Local 99 members appreciate Mónica García, Imelda Padilla, and Steve Zimmer’s commitment to addressing issues of poverty, hunger, and insecurity in our schools. We have been proud to partner with them to ensure that our schools are ‘safe zones’ for students and families threatened by immigration enforcement or discrimination,” Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99, said in a statement.

Zimmer’s opponent Melvoin admitted his regret for not obtaining CHIRLA’s endorsement but he said he had a “great conversation” with its endorsing committee and that they recognized that his support for the immigrant community “was so evident” when he worked as a teacher Markham Middle School in serving low-income Latinos and English learners in Watts.

District 4 has fewer Latino students than any of the other six board districts, yet they still make up the largest group. District 4 students are 42 percent Latino, 32 percent white, 13 percent African-American, and 7 percent Asian.

Melvoin said that while Latino voters don’t vote as often in school board elections, his campaign is trying to get them “more motivated” as he acknowledged the Latino support is crucial. The only prominent Latino name among his endorsements is former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was widely supported by Latinos.

Melvoin was also endorsed by the student advocate group Students for Education Reform (SFER) Action Network in California based on his work as an educator working with the Latino community.

“The majority of our Latino students decided that he is the right candidate, because they recognized his work as a teacher in Watts, teaching Latino and low-income students,” said Jeremy Knight, director of communication for SFER. “They also recognized his work running a center for homeless kids in the area. They feel confident that he will represent well students across the district.”

Voter turnout is estimated to be similar to past local elections. March’s primary election registered turnout at 21 percent. According to the Pat Brown Institute’s Who Votes in Los Angeles City Elections? report, voter turnout in 2013’s runoff election was 23 percent, and Latinos’ share of voter turnout was 24 percent. The report also noted that Latinos have significantly increased their impact on local elections in the past two decades.

“The only time when we see a high Latino vote turnout is in presidential elections, González said. “The Latino vote will be low in these local elections, because of the timing of the election and other factors. We won’t see anything different from previous elections.”

Read LA School Report’s full series of coverage at LAUSD Race 2017.

*This article has been corrected to state that Executive Editor Gabriel Lerner said La Opinión focuses on parents and their needs rather than politics, and that Nick Melvoin said that while Latino voters  don’t vote as often in school board elections, his campaign is trying to get them “more motivated.”

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