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EXCLUSIVE: Education advocate Steve Barr says ‘all encompassing’ presidential race stymied his mayoral bid

Sarah Favot | December 20, 2016

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Steve Barr was a panelist at an education forum hosted by The 74 and LA School Report at East Los Angeles College in October.

Steve Barr showed up at the city Election Division office downtown just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 7, the deadline to turn in signatures to qualify for the 2017 municipal ballot, with 878 signatures and a $300 check in his hands.

“I had been thinking about it all day,” he said in his only interview since deciding to drop out of the Los Angeles mayoral race.

He said he was concerned about the timing of mounting a successful challenge to an incumbent mayor just months after a presidential campaign that dominated news coverage and left many funders weary of politics and financially dried up.

Barr stood outside the building on the phone with Mike Trujillo, a political consultant and a supporter.

“I told him, ‘I’m not seeing that I’m going to be able to have the resources to put up a fight here,'” Barr recalled.

It was 10 minutes to 5 and a man was holding the door open to the building. Barr looked at him and said, “I’m good,” turned around and walked back to his truck.

Barr’s exit from the contest will likely take with it education as a major issue in the mayor’s race. Barr is the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a national network of charter schools that started in LA.

“I think, while Mayor Garcetti may disagree, he’s never made educating the black and brown students of inner Los Angeles a priority, and I doubt he’s going to make it a priority now,” Trujillo said Tuesday.

Garcetti’s campaign consultant Bill Carrick declined to comment for this article.

Political consultant John Shallman said he thinks education will drop off the radar of the mayor’s race.

“I really don’t think Eric Garcetti is going to have any trouble winning re-election,” he said. “I don’t expect there is going to be a vigorous challenge by anyone.”

He agreed Barr was a long-shot candidate, considering Garcetti has “played it pretty safe” and hasn’t had any major controversies.

Shallman agreed it would have been an uphill battle for Barr to mount a competitive campaign, considering the significant focus on federal politics rather than local elections.

“I would expect that he would have a very difficult time,” he said. “It’s a Democratic city, primarily, and the city, as the rest of the Democrats in California, were kind of in mourning. I’m not sure people fully recovered to try to get it together since that time.”

He said any serious contender against Garcetti would likely have to self-fund a campaign.

City Ethics Commission filings show that Barr raised about $18,000 as of Sept. 30 and spent about $34,000.

Garcetti has $2.25 million in his campaign war chest. The next competitive candidate in terms of fundraising is Mitchell Schwartz, who raised $255,000 as of Sept. 30. Schwartz is a Democratic political strategist who directed Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in California.

Barr said he felt he needed to raise $250,000 to run a competitive campaign.

The presidential race was “all encompassing” and costly for funders whom Barr reached out to after Nov. 8, he said.

With the city’s primary election just four months after the presidential election, Barr said the people he spoke with didn’t even want to talk politics.

“It just sucked the life out of any conversation, of ‘Oh, let’s talk about Los Angeles,’” Barr said, adding, “I underestimated how dominating this (presidential) campaign would be.”

Barr said he believes Garcetti is “vulnerable” and has “done very little on the meat and potatoes issues” like education. Unlike in cities such as New York and Chicago, the mayor of Los Angeles has no authority over the public school system. That duty falls to the seven elected school board members.

Three seats on the LA Unified school board will also be decided. The primary is March 7, and the general election is May 16.

The school board races also suck up a lot of money. In 2015, candidates and outside groups poured about $6.5 million into the four races, city Ethics Commission filings show. Two years earlier, candidates and outside groups spent about $7.5 million.

But Barr believes education shouldn’t be separated from the mayor’s role.

He said the first questions on anyone’s mind when they move into an area are: “How are the schools, and can I afford to live there?”

Los Angeles does not measure up on those responses, Barr said.

“I have the right message for the right time, it’s just the clutter and the closeness of the municipal election to the presidential, and not just any presidential… People are still seeking therapy,” he said, referring to Donald Trump’s victory.

Garcetti, first elected in 2013, seeks his second and final term, due to term limits.

It will be a 5.5-year term as Los Angeles voters in 2015 approved a ballot measure to consolidate municipal elections with state and federal elections.

Garcetti joined Superintendent Michelle King, school board President Steve Zimmer and other officials at a news conference on the first day of school where he promoted the Los Angeles College Promise, a partnership between the city, LA Unified and Los Angeles Community College District to offer a free year of community college to district graduates.

In January, the LA Weekly first reported that Barr was considering a mayoral run. He officially threw his hat into the ring in April. He vowed to make the troubled Los Angeles Unified School District a cornerstone of his campaign, along with homelessness and affordable housing.

Barr pointed to the 2005 race when challenger Antonio Villaraigosa ousted incumbent Mayor James K. Hahn, becoming the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles. Education was a central issue of that campaign.

Trujillo has worked for Villaraigosa, including on his 2005 campaign. He said Villaraigosa had the advantage of being an elected official and having name recognition when it came to fundraising for his mayoral bid.

Villaraigosa, a high school drop-out, also “spoke to the hearts and minds of LAUSD students” and their parents with his personal story of how LA Unified can be a safety net, Trujillo said. Villaraigosa eventually graduated from Roosevelt High.

Trujillo said with Barr’s experience appealing to parents to join Green Dot, he could also connect with voters who are dealing with the public school system.

Villaraigosa, a former California Assembly speaker, attempted to take over LA Unified through state legislation, but after the school district sued, a Superior Court judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and violated the Los Angeles City Charter.

As mayor, Villaraigosa actively campaigned and raised money for school board candidates. He created the nonprofit Partnership for Los Angeles Schools that takes over historically underserved schools. It is a unique collaboration in which its 19 schools remain under the district but are given additional resources from the Partnership.

Barr founded Green Dot Public Schools in 1999. He led the group in its successful takeover of Locke High School in Watts, the first time a district school was handed over to a charter school operator in LA. Barr left Green Dot in 2011. He is now chairman and CEO of Future Is Now, which he founded. The organization is focused on teacher training programs and state legislative advocacy.

He has a long career of political activism, working for the 1984 Summer Olympics torch relay and Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in the 1980s. In 1990, he co-founded Rock the Vote, a national campaign to encourage youth to vote.

But Barr hasn’t given up on a future mayoral race.

“I think being the mayor of a city like this would be one of the greatest jobs,” he said. “I think I would bring something completely different.”

Barr said if he were mayor, he would be able to bring together two divisive factions in education: teacher unions and education reformers, who support charter schools. Teachers at Green Dot charter schools are unionized. There is even a parent union.

United Teachers Los Angeles and California Federation of Teachers unions endorsed Garcetti in 2013 over his opponent Wendy Greuel, the former city controller and a fellow Democrat. Greuel won the endorsement of other city unions like firefighters and police officers.

Barr said he would make LA Unified schools an attractive place to teach with teacher training programs, higher salaries and housing vouchers. He said he would cut the district’s bureaucracy in half.

He said if he faced resistance, he could challenge the city charter through a ballot initiative to give the mayor more authority over the schools.

Ten candidates are challenging Garcetti, according to the city clerk’s certified list of candidates released Monday.

Three LA Unified school board seats are also up for election. The longest-serving board member, Mónica García, faces a challenge from Carl J. Petersen and Lisa Alva in Board District 2. Board President Steve Zimmer is challenged by Nick Melvoin, Gregory Martayan and Allison Holdorff Polhill in District 4, and six candidates are vying to replace Mónica Ratliff (who is running for City Council) in District 6: Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez, Jose Sandoval, Patty Lopez, Gwendolyn R. Posey, Imelda Padilla and Araz Parseghian.

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