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Alex Johnson has no greater supporter in his bid for LA Unified’s District 1 board seat than Mark Ridley-Thomas, the LA County Supervisor he has served as an education aide.
But it’s more than Ridley-Thomas’s vocal support that’s helping Johnson in his quest to beat George McKenna in the Aug. 12 runoff after McKenna outpolled him in the June primary, 44 percent to 24 percent.
An organization that Ridley-Thomas founded 12 years ago, the African American Voter Registration, Education & Participation Project (AAVREP), has spent more than $340,000 for campaign activities on Johnson’s behalf, a figure that represents more than two-thirds of the contributions AAVREP has received this year and more than two-thirds of all outside group spending on behalf of Johnson’s campaign, according to the latest state and city data.
“Alex was deemed to be very important in the larger scheme of things,” Norman Johnson, the Pastor of First New Christian Fellowship Baptist Church and controlling officer of AAVREP, said of the organization’s decision to spend so heavily. “Typically, a school board election isn’t high profile, but he is part of what we wanted to do, which was raise the profile of the election, itself, in terms of what’s at stake in south LA with educational issues.”
AAVREP’s raising the profile of the election has not been limited to saying nice things about Johnson. It also includes saying not-to-nice things about McKenna. In one $21,407 spend, AAVREP funded a mailer that says in a big headline: “We all had high hopes for George McKenna. But after his early fame, he let our children down.” In smaller print, it accuses him of much worse.
The McKenna campaign has called this and other negative campaign material from Johnson “shameful.”
Overall, six outside independent expenditure groups have spent more than $460,000 for Johnson, compared with $83,450 for McKenna. Only one group has spent on McKenna, the political action committee of UTLA, the teachers union. The LA Unified principals union, AALA, also supports McKenna but has not spent on his behalf.
On its website, AAVREP says it has the largest effort statewide to register African American and urban voters, having registered over 175,000 voters in the last 10 years.
In recent years, it has supported Jerry Brown for governor, Kamala Harris for attorney general and Wendy Greuel for LA mayor. Johnson is its first beneficiary at the school board level.
Ridley-Thomas has always had a close relationship with labor groups, and they have given more than $280,000 to AAVREP since the start of the year — electricians, food workers, long-term care workers, fire fighters, even life guards and deputy sheriffs.
Perhaps not surprisingly, individual labor groups have come out in force, endorsing Johnson.
Pastor Johnson said the decision to spend so much on Alex Johnson essentially came from the people and groups who contribute money to AAVREP. He said “certainly, the relationship is there” between the candidate and Ridley-Thomas, “but Alex was not recruited to run. He’s not someone who was hand-picked. He came along with his own concerns and his own interests. He pretty much had to demonstrate he was not only a viable candidate but he was a candidate people could get behind.”
One labor group, though, is conspicuous by its absence from the Johnson camp: teachers.
McKenna is their man, in part for the close alignment between Johnson and charter schools. One of Johnson’s other big supporters is the PAC affiliated with the California Charter Schools Association, which has spent $114,000.
None of the money spent for McKenna’s benefit has included anti-Johnson rhetoric.
“Educators have been the backbone of this campaign from day one,” McKenna’s campaign manager, Jewett Walker, said, referring to a race that began with seven candidates. “Educators know and trust Dr. McKenna and trust that he will be an informed and independent voice on the board. The $300,000 spent so far on Johnson by AAVREP, combined with the other expenditures supporting him from billionaires and outside special interests groups like Michelle Rhee‘s organization, have exceeded $1 million. That’s what happens when you try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”