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Analysis: How to avoid a school board runoff in 4 easy steps

Jamie Alter Lynton | May 30, 2014

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LAUSD School Board runoff Election 2014 With seven candidates vying for the vacant LAUSD school board seat in South LA, what would it take to pull ahead of the pack and head off a costly stand-alone runoff?

Coinciding with the California statewide primary on June 3, the special election was called to fill the District 1 board seat, left vacant by death last year of longtime member Marguerite LaMotte.

We asked Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, whose expertise in local politics helped steer Mayor Eric Garcetti, among many others, to victory, for his armchair analysis based on the number of candidates in the field — although not on the specific candidates themselves.

Carrick concedes, “It’s tough to get to ‘fifty-plus-one,’ ” the magic majority for an outright win.

Tough but not impossible.  Here’s what he says the potential winner needs:

Great name recognition: “In a large field, with lots of challengers name recognition is especially important. Running up a huge margin in a race without an incumbent is hard. The kind of name ID a candidate would need usually doesn’t come easily with a non-incumbent.”

A robust campaign operation: The idea, he says, is to generate enough community support that the second-place candidate stays below 40 percent. It’s harder in such a larger field, he says, making the campaign operation all the more important.

Hope the lesser-known candidates don’t ‘pop’: “If the lowliers add up to more than 10 percent combined, it gets much harder.”

Fingers-crossed for a high turnout: It helps the frontrunner in a crowded field; low turnout magnifies the power of each vote cast.

What could all this mean for the presumed front-runner, George McKenna?

McKenna may have what it takes to avoid a runoff, but the math is not in his favor.

A familiar, well-liked figure in the district and a retired LAUSD administrator, he does have name recognition. He was the subject of a made-for-TV movie about turning around a failing school in the 1980s called the “George McKenna Story,” starring Denzel Washington. He’s also well-funded, with $122,000 raised (including $10,000 of his own) through the last reporting period, according the the City Ethics website.

The problem may the lesser-known candidates hanging below 10 percent. While Alex Johnson, an aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, is running second, according to sources, and he, too, has a well-funded campaign, $208,000 as of the last reporting period. It is the rest of the pack that could siphon votes from McKenna.

Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who held this same seat 15 years ago, is also a recognizable name in the district. She has raised $105,000, including $40,000 of her own, and has recently distributed mail pieces, although details have not yet been made clear on the Ethics website.

Another unknown factor is the appeal of Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, a teacher and coach, who is one of three candidates endorsed by the teachers union. While UTLA’s super PAC, PACE, is staying out of the race, Hendy-Newbill got a boost this week with an endorsement from an advocacy group led by Diane Ravitch, one of the strongest voices in the country opposed to standardized testing and charter schools.

District 1, which covers a wide swath of south LA, stretching east to the 110 freeway and west through Mar Vista has over 300,000 registered voters, but the turnout has been historically low for school board elections. Last time, in 2011, the turnout was below 15 percent.

Using those turnout numbers, in order for McKenna to beat Johnson outright, the other five candidates would have to share fewer than 5,000 votes.

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