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Election night surprise: Why Steve Zimmer conceded with only absentee ballot results

Mike Szymanski | May 17, 2017

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Steve Zimmer conceding Tuesday with girlfriend Anika Fernandez at his side.

Even before any results were announced from ballots cast Tuesday at the polls, Steve Zimmer stood outside a deli in Mar Vista and conceded defeat before heading inside to hug his friends and supporters.

At that point, only absentee ballots had been counted, but more than 60 percent were against him, and he didn’t see that turning around. When a reporter asked him why he was conceding so early, he snapped at her saying, “You can read. I mean, look, I’m a realist.”

The last time he ran for re-election, the tables were turned and he received 60 percent of the absentee votes. He predicted this time that he would be defeated.

The unofficial voter turnout for Tuesday’s election was 8.5 percent, said Sandra Mendoza, the public information officer for the Los Angeles city clerk’s office. In Zimmer’s District 4, which tends to have a more active voter turnout, about 11 percent turned out to vote.

Mendoza reported that as of late Monday, 116,817 — or 13.5 percent — of the 866,567 ballots issued in the citywide races had been mailed in and processed.

With all 19 LA Unified precincts reporting, challenger Nick Melvoin won 57.41 percent to Zimmer’s 42.58 percent. Melvoin received 30,696 votes and Zimmer 22,766 votes.

Grand View Market where Zimmer’s campaign ended.

The clerk’s office announced they started Wednesday totaling the final tally, which includes adding up nearly 12,000 mail-in ballots citywide that were received at the polls, another 10,444 vote-by-mail ballots received in time by mail, and more than 17,000 other provisional and miscellaneous ballots to be counted before a final tally is announced June 13. Those ballots aren’t just for LA Unified school board seats, though. There was a citywide amendment, and in District 6 there was a City Council runoff.

Inside the Grand View Market, about 50 people waited to individually greet Zimmer, who walked in with his girlfriend, Anika Fernandez. Many of them were unaware that results were already coming in and not going his way, and a young man who was projecting the results was purposely keeping the Zimmer-Melvoin race covered. “I’m doing what I’ve been told,” he said, although he revealed the numbers to those who asked.

Meanwhile, Zimmer picked up a green “reserved” sign from one of the tables and began jotting down notes on the back of it for his concession to the crowd. Around 9:50 p.m., he took the microphone and thanked the crowd for their support. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl had just arrived from District 6 candidate Imelda Padilla’s party in the San Fernando Valley, and school board vice president George McKenna had just entered and sat down with a plate of food when Zimmer addressed the somber group.

But, by then, he had already told three reporters outside the party that he lost, and he said he wouldn’t call Melvoin to concede, saying, “Would you?”

Zimmer greets supporters as he enters the deli.

Zimmer said to reporters outside, “There’s a lot of ways to interpret tonight. I may not have been successful tonight, but I want to make sure that the kids know they are not failures, our teachers are not failures, and our district is not a failure. The progress of this district is real, and it’s not dependent on the outcome of one election.”

Zimmer started off the election day voting with his girlfriend at his Hollywood polling location about two hours after polls opened Tuesday. Then he quoted from the tragedy “Hamlet” on Facebook, writing, “This old school teacher is going to leave you with this: ‘we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow … if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.’ Together, we are ready.”

At the campaign party was Bennett Kayser, a former board member who was unseated in 2013. Kayser said, “This was a dirty campaign, but it is such a shame because the district will lose a good guy in Steve.” He recalled that campaign flyers labeled him a slum lord and “the ads had no relationship with reality.”

Marco Flores and Lori Vollandt of LAUSD at Zimmer’s party.

Zimmer noted that his two friends from the school board had it rough, but he had it worse with the amount spent on the negative campaign ads. “It was a little worse, a little more intense for me. What we’ve seen is a progression, unfortunately, and what I endured in 2013 was awful and what George McKenna faced in 2014 was worse, and what Bennet got in 2015 was worse than what George got. What I faced here is the worst that we’ve seen. It’s a horrible way to win an election.”

In his concession speech, Zimmer said, “I may have lost an election, but my soul is intact.”

He vowed never to run for office again. “I’ll never run in an election ever again in my life,” he said. “The only reason I put myself and my family through this is that I believe in the kids and teachers of this district. I will never put the people I love through anything like this again, and no one should have to and that’s the scariest thing about this, the message should not be that we win elections by lies and fear. I’m not saying there weren’t real issues to come after me about, and maybe that’s why people were voting the way they did, but the way the election was waged shouldn’t have happened.”

Zimmer was endorsed by high-level people such as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and nearly all of the Los Angeles city council (councilman Paul Koretz came to the party), and many past school board members. He was visited at campaign headquarters by Mayor Eric Garcetti over the weekend and got a full-throated endorsement. (See video below.)

Lori Vollandt, an instructor who started off with Zimmer when he started teaching 25 years ago, said she was devastated by Zimmer’s election loss but added, “He will go on to do bigger and better things. He needs to move on.”

Although in the San Fernando Valley it was still neck-and-neck with the District 6 race, Zimmer was ready to close up shop in Mar Vista.

“There’s no sugar coating it, what happened is a devastating loss,” Zimmer said. “It will take time for all of us to get our heads around what it means, but I need you to know that I may not have been successful, but we the teachers, we the students, we the families of this district are not a failure.”

Although there were tears in the room among the teachers, campaign workers, and staff, Zimmer said, “Don’t leave this room thinking that you were wrong, don’t question your ideals or your values. This is a very difficult moment in public education and this nation.

“Democracy is more powerful than one candidate or one election,” he said. “We can save every child through public education. Mine won’t be the voice to carry the message, but the truth is that it was not ever my voice, it was our collective voice and our collective action. Dreams don’t have borders, dreams don’t lose elections.”

And so, what was Zimmer’s next plan? He answered quickly. He had a class to teach at Occidental College on Wednesday night.

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