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Memo to Voters: Attack Ads on the Horizon

Samantha Oltman | October 11, 2012

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A negative campaign mailer from the 2011 board race

The rise of outside money in LAUSD board elections has coincided with a spate of negative campaign advertising in recent elections.

It’s a tactic that nobody claims to enjoy, but it seems to work. So it’s likely the upcoming campaigns leading to the March LAUSD election will continue the trend.

“Welcome to the brave new world of American politics post-Citizens United,” says political consultant Parke Skelton. “Candidates are becoming afterthoughts. These are battles between gigantic groups, and candidates are just chess pieces.”

Independent expenditure committees can accept unlimited donations and spend unlimited funds on behalf of a candidate as long as there is no direct contact with the campaign. This outside money has created an opportunity for more mudslinging because candidates can let IEs do the dirty work without any accountability for authorizing the negative messages.

The teachers union’s independent expenditure committee, UTLA-PACE (Political Action Council of Educators), as well as groups supporting reform candidates, such as the Coalition for School Reform, are major players in LAUSD board elections, having spent millions of dollars in recent races.

The 2011 race for the District 5 school board seat offers a prime example. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “expensive” and “nasty,” it pitted Bennett Kayser, a former teacher and past candidate for the board, against Luis Sanchez, a LAUSD staff member whose reform-minded platform won him the support of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the ire of the teachers union.

According to figures provided by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, UTLA-PACE spent $1.4 million in independent expenditures to support Kayser – dwarfing Kayser’s own direct campaign spending, which totaled only $33,000. (Kayser did little personal fundraising and had fewer than 90 individual donors.) UTLA spent $660,000 – or 47 percent of the $1.4 million total – on a series of negative mailers that his opponents described as alarmist and misleading.

They’re certainly not subtle. Here are just a couple of samples:

A negative UTLA mailer

A negative UTLA mailer

Meanwhile, Kasyer’s opponent Luis Sanchez also had the help of IEs, whose spending totaled $1.6 million. The local chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) made up the majority of the independent expenditures on his behalf, followed by the Coalition for School Reform. (Sanchez also ran a much more robust traditional campaign than Kayser – raising $337,000 in direct contributions from over 815 donors). But the reform IEs campaigning on behalf of Sanchez stayed mostly positive. They spent less than 2 percent, or $19,000 of $1.6 million total, on negative mailers, which focused on criticizing Kayser for being late on paying his property taxes.

What can we expect for 2013? More of the same.

Skelton, who was a consultant of the Coalition for School Reform’s IE in the Sanchez-Kayser race, says Kayser won not only because of the negative ads but also because of the heavy support he received from teachers union. “UTLA can spend virtually unlimited money in a race, so in an extremely low turnout race, they’re going to have an advantage,” Skelton said.

In the 2011 District 5 election, voter turnout was below 10 percent. Kayser won the board seat by 602 votes.

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