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A Good – But Not Great – Campaign, Say Reform Insiders

Alexander Russo | March 20, 2013

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Insiders who spoke with LA School Report over the past few days generally rejected criticisms aimed by some outside observers at the Coalition for School Reform-funded campaign to elect a slate of reform-minded candidates to the LAUSD School Board.

“Because Kate [Anderson] lost, every single thing [the Coalition] did looks wrong,” said one insider who — like most of those contacted for this story — declined to talk on the record.

In particular, insiders denounced the notion that the campaign consultants hired by the Coalition were incompetent or conflicted by their work for other clients including labor groups.

“The way consultants get clients is by winning,” said another insider.  “Pulling punches for the possibility of future client work makes no sense.”

However, the insiders – a half-dozen campaign and school reform veterans familiar with the Coalition and its consultants — generally agreed that there were specific strategic decisions and actions that SCN Strategies, the consulting firm hired to do most of the Coalition-funded work, might have wished it had decided differently – and might have affected the outcome of the District 4 race, which Zimmer won with 52 percent of the votes.

One insider described SCN as “good people who didn’t run a great campaign.“

Over the past week or so, criticisms of the Coalition-funded campaign to elect Kate Anderson, Antonio Sanchez, and Monica Garcia have begun to emerge.

Insiders told LA School Report that the Coalition-funded campaign won on primary day but lost – badly – when it came to mail-in ballots.

Former state lawmaker Gloria Romero wrote a scathing oped claiming that Mayor Villaraigosa shouldn’t have tried to oust Steve Zimmer in the first place.

Rival consultant Brian Adams wrote a letter to former Mayor Richard Riordan outlining several key failings and an attack ad against Zimmer that was never aired.

Looking back at the primary campaign, most of the insiders praised the teachers union for running a particularly effective campaign against the Coalition, stressed the difficulties and uncertainties of running a hotly contested local School Board campaign, and noted that pretty much any decision can be dissected in hindsight.

However, there was general agreement among those we spoke to that the “Talking Bench” TV ad was off-topic and ineffective.  “It wasn’t about kids, it was about RFK School.  That didn’t make a lot of sense.”

And there were several other issues that came up as possible mistakes.

For example, the Coalition-funded campaign might have spent too much on District 6.

“You don’t need to spend $1 million to get Antonio Sanchez into a runoff when the union is spending nothing,” said a reform insider.

At the same time, it might have pent too little on Kate Anderson in District 4, given its fundraising advantage and how close the race was.

“We shouldn’t have been near spending parity in District 4,” said an insider.  “We had a four to one funding advantage and we didn’t do a good job leveraging our financial advantage. There’s no strategic excuse for that. “

The funding advantage could have been put to use with an early start on the vote by mail front.

“If you have that much money, why not start 30 days before mail-in ballots get sent out rather than waiting until 30 days before the primary,” said one insider.  “The real campaign was in the mail.”

The Coalition may also have relied too heavily on mailed flyers and paid field workers to canvas neighborhoods, and under-emphasized online campaigning and other “new” forms of generating votes.

“Consultants say you’ve got to do direct mail and are afraid of not doing it,” said one insider. “But the world of political campaigning is changing, and some consultants are going to have to be dragged into this world kicking and screaming.”

Reform supporters behind the Coalition may have relied too much on outside efforts and consultants rather than supporting the candidate herself.

“Strategic help on the candidate side is a more important fundamental thing to get right than mail and paid field,” said one campaign observer.  “You need a solid volunteer-driven field program, which can really only be effective through the campaign itself.”

Some insiders thought that the Coalition didn’t attack Zimmer vigorously enough — or rather didn’t pick the right avenues of attack..

For example, the Coalition campaign on behalf of Anderson – and the Anderson campaign itself – should have focused on the hot-button issue of sexual abusers in schools — “the child molester stuff “ — according to one insider.

“Sure, Zimmer differed from UTLA on the [teacher removal] issue, but he’d still have to go around explaining his position.  You know what they say in politics: When you’re explaining you’re losing. ”

Instead, Anderson supporters focused on budget decisions made by incumbent Anderson, which the insider described as “pattycake” stuff.

Last but not least, the Coalition and its consultants failed to respond effectively to the “outside money” attacks made by the union against Anderson and her far-off funders.

“We’re going to continue to get this knock on anyone we support until we figure out a response,” said an insider — noting that it was the union’s most effective argument.  “They use it over and over again. “

The feedback from the insiders wasn’t unanimous – or conclusive.

“Should they have come up with another ad?  That’s a fair tactical question,” said a campaign insider.  “But the fact that Anderson won on election day shows that the message worked.”

There were also differences of opinion about whether it would have helped to attack Zimmer via the teachers union or not, as proposed in the Brian Adams online ad.

“I think there’s a misconception with a lot of the more hardcore reform-y types that attacking the union is the way to have the debate,” wrote one insider in an email.  “That is wrongwrongwrong. Especially in a Democratic strong hold like LA, in a Democratic program, that is a way to lose. Even in really conservative states like Alabama and Tennessee, teacher unions in the abstract poll well.”

 “To be totally blunt, it’s really hard to know what happened,” said one insider whose organization contributed to the Coalition.  “We’re disappointed that we lost, and really thought we could win.”

Both the Coalition and SCN Strategies have declined so far to respond to LA School Report for this story.

Previous posts: Coalition Campaign was “Half-Hearted and Incompetent,” says Rival ConsultantThe Zimmer Attack Ad That Never Was; Mayor Overreached Against Zimmer, Says ReformerHow Steve Zimmer *Really* Won

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