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Campaign 2013: How Ratliff Won (& Reformers Lost)*

Hillel Aron | May 22, 2013

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The results are (mostly) in, and the LAUSD School Board District 6 election looks like the shock result of the evening, with Monica Ratliff having apparently defeated Antonio Sanchez, 52 percent to 48 percent — a complete reversal from the primary results in which Sanchez bested Ratliff by 10 points.

Sanchez has now conceded the race.* Ratliff couldn’t be reached for comment. The Daily News’ Barbara Jones reported earlier this morning that Ratliff was at San Pedro Elementary teaching, as she has been throughout the campaign.

Turnout in the race was roughly 16 percent, although according to the City Clerk, there are still more than 82,000 votes left to be counted citywide. It is unknown how many of those uncounted ballots are from District 6.

Observers, to say the least, are shocked. Recriminations within the so-called “school reform” community have already begun, with one pro-reform insider calling the result “an utter disaster.”

The small clique of UTLA activists that helped Ratliff win, on the other hand, are ecstatic.

“Am I surprised? Yes,” said Brent Smiley, vice chair for UTLA’s political action committee. “I’m truly floored. I think, ultimately, [voters] saw [Sanchez] as a politician. And they viewed [Ratliff] as what she was – a classroom teacher.”

Those involved in the race are crediting Ratliff’s poise as a candidate, her ballot designation as a classroom teacher, and a small but devoted group of volunteers; they blame Sanchez’s loss on his lack of familiarity with education issues, the ineffectiveness of the campaigns on his behalf, and low voter turnout.

At least one observer credited UTLA’s endorsement of both Ratliff and Sanchez, which conventional wisdom credited as a major advantage for Sanchez, as having had the completely unintended effect of protecting Ratliff.

While Ratliff’s campaign was greatly outspent, local know-how may have played a part in her victory.

Smiley (who does not speak for UTLA) was part of a small group of teacher-activists who worked tirelessly on the Ratliff campaign, posting on list-serves and on Facebook and going door-to-door, targeting likely voters.

“Because there are so many of us who have done these campaigns before, we know how to do this,” he said. “We know which voters to focus on.”

Ratliff won the early mail-in vote by roughly four percentage points, which was not much of a surprise given the past performance of other UTLA-supported candidates like Steve Zimmer.

Much more surprisingly, Ratliff came close to breaking even on ballots cast on election day, marking a stunning loss for the field organizations of both the Coalition for School Reform and SEIU Local 99, which were both supporting Sanchez.

“Antonio Sanchez’ understanding of the needs of our communities made him a strong voice for our schools,” said SEIU Local 99 head Courtni Pugh in a statement. “While we are disappointed that he was not elected to the LAUSD School Board, we look forward to working with Monica Ratliff.”

The Coalition and the SEIU spent over $2 million to elect Sanchez. Ratliff, meanwhile, spent roughly $50,000 and had no special interest support.

The defeat may prove to have some long-term benefits for LA’s school reform movement.

“It’s stunning, but in way, it’s good,” said the pro-reform insider we spoke with. “It shows you can’t buy an election.”

Many will, no doubt, blame the candidate himself.

“Sanchez was definitely a bad candidate,” said the reform insider.  “I don’t think he had any affinity for education. This was just a stepping stone for him.”

Others may blame the recruitment and selection of the candidate by the Villaraigosa team.

The Coalition for School Reform appeared confident in the days before the election. Multiple sources said they had internal polls showing Sanchez up by as many as 20 percentage points.

And the independent expenditure campaign appeared to be saving up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the next elections, in 2015, rather than spending down as they might have done if they’d expected a close race.

Now the reform movement in LA faces the reality of having spent roughly over $4 million (once all the bills are paid) only to lose two out of three 2013 School Board races.

Making matters worst, its driving force, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is out of a job and his replacement — Eric Garcetti — is by many accounts unlikely to be as devoted to the reform approach to education as his predecessor.

One of the biggest oddities of the race was the teachers union’s dual endorsement of both Ratliff and Sanchez, which tied UTLA’s hands when it came to supporting Ratliff.

That strategy, harshly criticized by pro-Ratliff activists like Diane Ravitch, now looks like it may have worked out.

Even though Smiley supported Ratliff, he was also an architect of the dual endorsement strategy, saying that both candidates were perfectly acceptable, and arguing that it would be better to have teachers decide who to vote for themselves.

If this meant that UTLA couldn’t spend any money on Ratliff, it also meant that the Coalition couldn’t attack Ratliff for being beholden to the union, of which she was a chapter chair and House of Representatives member.

“We took away from the Coaltion the one thing they desperately needed — a negative message,” said Smiley. “We didn’t let them hit the teachers union. They had absolutely nothing negative to say.”

Indeed, there was no negative campaigning whatsoever in the runoff — neither by Sanchez, the Coalition, or the underdog Ratliff.

Not that Smiley planned it that way: “I’m not gonna lie to you and say that was the plan. It wasn’t.”

The Coalition for School Reform congratulated Ratliff on her victory.

“Although thousands of votes remain uncounted, it appears that Monica Ratliff has won the District 6 runoff for Los Angeles School Board.  The Coalition for School Reform congratulates member-elect Ratliff and looks forward to working with her.”

For most of the morning, the Sanchez campaign was not prepared to give up.

“The turnout was 16.76%, and in extremely low, I would say historically low-turnout elections, anything can happen,” said Sanchez spokesman Mike Shimpock in an email statement. “Unfortunately, anything did happen and Antonio finds himself behind. But there still are many outstanding ballots to be counted, and anything could happen again, only in our favor. I think we need to wait and see what the clerk says their timeline for completing the canvass is before we make any decisions.”

However, the Sanchez campaign conceded shortly after noon on Wednesday.
*UPDATE:  The original version of this story was published shortly before the Sanchez campaign conceded, and has since been updated to show the change in events.

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