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Analysis: Primaries over, LAUSD races now seeking voters and money

Michael Janofsky | March 5, 2015

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Red Rodriguez supporters

(Credit: Twitter @Casey_Horton)

Now that the primaries are over, it’s time to ponder a few issues they raise. And perhaps nothing is more ponderous than turnout.

Los Angeles is growing notorious for the pathetic number of voters who show up at polling places. But if you thought Tuesday’s less-than-10 percent turnout was bad, just wait until the May 19 runoffs, when Angelinos have only one City Council race to decide and three LA Unified board seats, in Districts 3, 5 and 7.

This poses enormous challenges for political action committees that may need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the handful of votes that would translate to victory.

Already, the school board District 5 race shows the certainty of another big spend. The California Charter Schools Association’s political arm put out $421,000 to help Ref Rodriguez, who finished first, while the PAC for the teachers union, UTLA, spent about $463,000 to support incumbent Bennett Kayser, who was second.

Together, they polled fewer than 16,000 votes. 

The challenge for all political action committees is how much more to spend in an 11-week general election campaign, with the charter group sure to write checks, as well, to support the incumbents in District 3, Tamar Galatzan, and District 7, Richard Vladovic.

The charters, of course, have the deeper pockets, drawing on help from such beloved/reviled education reformers as Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad. The teachers union has to decide how much from dues of 35,000 members aching for a pay raise it needs to remain competitive.

The expectations of a big spend in District 5 reflects the importance of the seat to both sides, and the winning effort could well reverberate beyond LA Unified.

This is the latest showdown between the polar opposites in American education policy, pitting those who support charters as a preferred option to traditional public schools against those who believe the charters contribute to the challenges in traditional schools by bleeding them of human and financial resources.

Victories by Rodriguez and Galatzan would give the reformers a solid bloc on the board, along with Monica Garcia. As the union’s strongest ally on the board, Kayser stands tallest against the parade of charter schools seeking approval and renewal. 

But board influence will become even more critical when the members set out to find a replacement for Superintendent Ramon Cortines. The stronger the teachers’ influence, the less likely they hire a John Deasy acolyte. And vice versa.

Something else to think about, arising out of Tuesday’s results:

Republicans — remember them? — had a big night. While an endangered species in Sacramento, they moved two friendlies into the finals with Scott Schmerelson in Galatzan’s race and Lydia Gutierrez in Vladovic’s.

Running a school system is rarely a partisan issue, with the usual mix on the LA Unified board of left-leaning Democrats and further left-leaning Democrats.

But that could change if Republicans view the primary as a bench-building opportunity for the party statewide, at least for bragging rights if not future ambitions. Campaign support from the state party or aligned groups would provide an unforeseen boost for two candidates who had no outside spending support in the primary. 

One caveat here: While Gutierrez’s run last year for State Superintendent of Public Instruction brought her nearly a million votes, her politics might be too rightward for voters in a district where only 15 percent of voters identify as Republican.

But that’s not to say she couldn’t surprise, siphoning off voters who believe Vladovic has been too passive as a board president with no clearly-articulated vision for the district.

The key to victory may lie in the demographics of a district in which the plurality of voters, 39.1 percent, are Hispanic, a big advantage for Gutierrez; with 29.3 percent white and 22.4 percent black.

Vladovic, who is white, won the primary with 43 percent of the vote to 38 for Gutierrez, a Latina. That’s hardly a landslide. Finishing third with 19 percent was Euna Anderson, a black.

That narrow margin of victory suggests Vladovic needs a strong showing from Hispanic voters and a big percentage of Anderson’s to assure his return to the board. An endorsement from Anderson could play a major role in who wins.

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