Campaign: Door-to-Door in Sunland with Monica Ratliff
Hillel Aron | May 20, 2013
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Going door-to-door in the Sunland section of the East Valley one evening this past weekend, District 6 School Board candidate Monica Ratliff‘s pitch to voters goes something like this:
“Hi, my name is Monica Ratliff. I’m a teacher, and I’m running for the Board of Education. Do you have any questions or concerns about the school district?”
Most voters are startled by this; it’s unusual for a politician to ask voters for advice three days before the May 21 election.
But then, Ratliff is no politician.
That’s been both a strength and a weakness in the campaign. When speaking, Ratliff comes off as an authentic person with real opinions often based on 12 years of teaching in a classroom.
But her lack of political savvy has also caused her some grief — most notably in her shifting positions on the leadership of LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy.
On Saturday, Ratliff seems more interested in hearing from voters about what’s on their minds rather than telling them her own views.
Questioned by the candidate at their homes, voters’ first reaction is usually one of reticence. Then, perhaps they think of something.
“I know something — put the food back!” says a woman watering her lawn. “A lot of my daughter and her friends won’t eat the food… You know, the healthy stuff. The Obama stuff.” (LAUSD has recently changed its menu to offer healthier options).
“I’ve tasted some of the stuff,” says the District 6 School Board candidate, sympathetically. “Now, it would be nice to make it more…” She pauses, and says: “Palatable.”
Asked later about new, healthier school food options, Ratliff says that she’s not in favor of the district going back to the old menu.
She also supports Breakfast in the Classroom, the nutrition program that’s been pilloried by the teachers union in recent months (and was recently re-approved by the School Board over UTLA protests).
In fact, as a 5th grade teacher at San Pedro Elementary, a high-performing school in one of the cities poorest areas, her students actually participate in the program.
“I support breakfast for hungry children,” says Ratliff, almost implying that to do otherwise would be idiotic. “But I think we should tweak it in a number of areas.” For example: “We give the students a lot of muffins. I think it would be great it had more protein. The kids love omelette day.”
Ratliff’s opinions about the district come directly from her 12 years of experience as a classroom teacher. She’s seen first-hand the effects of budget cuts — she says her kids only get P.E. once a month — and suspending kids for willful defiance, a practice that some teachers view as a critical option for maintaining classroom discipline that the Board just voted to end.
“The problem is that when you suspend kids, they don’t learn,” she says.
We spent two hours on Saturday evening walking door-to-door in Sunland, one of the more affluent sections of District 6, an area dominated by horse farms and stables. The tracts are big, the houses are big, and many have big fences.
Ratliff chose the precinct because it’s close to her house but also because most of its residents voted for Ratliff during the primary.
According to her campaign manager, a screenwriter named Chuck Kanganis, her campaign has 33 volunteers making phone calls and walking precincts this Saturday.
One of them is Matthew Kogan, a teacher and UTLA Chapter Chair at Evans Community School, who accompanies Ratliff as she goes door-to-door.
She walks up to a large fence and calls the phone number of the house, which is usually provided on lists of registered voters made available to candidates for a small fee.
“Hi, my name is Monica Ratliff,” she says over the phone. “I’m a teacher, and I’m running for Board of Education, and I’m actually standing outside your gate right now.”
For some, this might sound a bit creepy. But Ratliff delivers the line with a kind of friendly confidence that seems to put voters at ease. When she solicits their opinions, it usually leaves them impressed, perhaps even flattered.
“They’re electing me to be their representative, so it’s essential to know what they’re concerns are,” says Ratliff.
When voters aren’t home, she writes a short message on glossy campaign flyers, which have her personal email and cel phone number printed.
Many of the Sunland homeowners — especially those in the hills — say they send their children to private school.
“I wouldn’t have my kid go to public school in LA,” says one woman bluntly. “It’s sad. I wish there was a public school that I felt safe sending my kids to. But it feels like a lost cause.”
Ratliff handles voters like this (we meet three others) smoothly. She listens sympathetically and thanks them. Sometimes, she doesn’t even ask for their vote. For a political neophyte, Ratliff is surprisingly comfortable talking to voters and talking incisively about issues on the fly.
But there’s one topic that can make Ratliff squirm.
“I want you to support Mr. Deasy and the changes he’s trying to make,” says one woman Ratliff encounters, who says she already voted for Ratliff on her absentee ballot. “It’s difficult in the district and it needs to be better.”
“I’ve heard that,” says Ratliff, nervously.
Ratliff’s position on the Superintendent has shifted over the last few months. Initially, she refused to commit to keeping him. Then, in a phone interview with LA School Report, she said she would vote to fire Deasy, but that he’d be allowed to re-apply for his job, much like teachers at reconstituted schools. Her reasoning, at the time, was that no other candidates had been interviewed when Deasy was originally hired.
The move appeared to be an attempt to curry favor with the teachers union, which has endorsed both Ratliff and her opponent. The union has stayed neutral, although Ratliff has gotten the support of UTLA activists like Kogan and Brent Smiley, as well as New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, who has criticized the union’s stance.
But Ratliff’s pivot made others wary. The LA Times, which had endorsed her in the primary, called her in for a second interview, where Ratliff assured them that she would not vote to fire Deasy after all.
“It appeared that his appointment — there’d been no search process,” she says now, walking down the street, tension building in her voice. “After I said that, I spoke to a number if people about previous searches. It became clear that the search doesn’t matter… What became clear is if School Boards want to buy out [the superintendent’s contract], they’re going to do it.”
She also says “the purpose was to get this money out of the School Board race,” suggesting that since Deasy has the support of the Coalition for School Reform, an independent expenditure (IE) committee that has poured $3.8 million into the three Board races, a vote against Deasy is a vote against the Coalition.
But her logic is hard to follow. When pressed, she seems to become flustered.
“I just feel like I explained it to the LA Times, and I explained it to you,” she says, trying to put the subject to bed.
The Times editorial board appeared satisfied with her explanation, and kept their endorsement of her.
Ratliff is the decided underdog in this race. The Coalition for School Reform and the SEIU Local 99, which represents LAUSD classified workers, have spent nearly $2 million on behalf of Sanchez — for a job that pays just over $40,000 a year.
Not only that, District 6 is more than 50 percent Latino, according to Political Data.
Sanchez’s name leaves no doubt as to his ethnicity, but it’s not so clear for Ratliff. She doesn’t speak Spanish fluently*, but she is actually half Latina, with a mom from Guadalajara, Mexico, who gave birth to her in Phoenix.
The Ratliff campaign tried to capitalize on this recently by sending out rulers reading “Mònica Ratliff.”
“I heard that people were saying I was a white Republican,” she says. “I’m actually Latina. I wanted to make sure we got that message out.”
Most insiders and observers give Ratliff little chance of beating the well-funded and well-connected Sanchez. But there is a chance. Teachers and people who are close to teachers like to vote for other teachers, and they vote reliably. If voter turnout is especially low, Ratliff’s job as a teacher could make all the difference.
*This post originally stated that Ratliff does not speak Spanish. Her campaign manager, who didn’t get back to us until after the story had been first posted, says that she speaks “conversational Spanish.”
Previous posts: Board Candidate Ratliff Attends UTLA Rally*; School Board Candidate Praises Deasy’s Efforts to Limit Tenure; District 6 Candidate Commits to Support Deasy; Runoff: Union & LA Times Might Shift Endorsements