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Zimmer convinces school board to go for ‘clean money’ elections

Mike Szymanski | February 15, 2017

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SteveZimmer - 1Although he’s currently the recipient of campaign cash in what may be the most expensive school board race ever, LA Unified board President Steve Zimmer pushed through a “Clean Money” resolution on Tuesday but said it is not about him.

Zimmer convinced his often disparate group of colleagues on the school board to unanimously approve the Los Angeles City Council’s proposal to develop a comprehensive Clean Money public financing system for local elections, which could start in 2018 if approved by voters.

Not only is Zimmer facing a million-dollar campaign to unseat him from former Mayor Richard Riordan, this school board race is on track to become the most expensive in history.

“This is about the future of our democracy,” Zimmer said Tuesday. “Our electoral system is broken; it is not as it was designed to be. We need to work together to do whatever is in our power to restore the integrity of our electoral process. Public financing for elections is a real possibility in our near future if we have the courage to stand up to special interests on all sides. We need election processes that honor the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our children and their families. This is one step in the right direction.”

In the 2015 LA Unified school board elections, a total of $6.5 million was spent by candidates and independent expenditure committees on four school board seats in Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7 in the primary and general elections. It was widely thought to be the most expensive school board race ever.

As of Jan. 21, six weeks ahead of the March 7 primary, campaign finance records show candidates for three seats on the school board and independent expenditure committees have already spent $3.3 million.

If the pace of spending continues, this election would set a record.

Mónica García, who is running for re-election in District 2, jumped in quickly to support Zimmer’s resolution, even though some of her charter-friendly supporters oppose Zimmer and some of his supporters such as UTLA have not endorsed her.

“I am happy to support this work,” García said. “The public sector does demand leadership and responsibility to make it work. We are the seven folks elected to make it work for kids. Whoever wants to get involved in elections, we need to point out that ours are the most expensive in the country.”

The resolution from Zimmer, which passed unanimously, was rushed through to coincide with a vote this month by the Los Angeles City Council to direct the City Ethics Commission to submit a plan for a clean money system to begin with the 2018 election cycle. The proposal is supported by Councilman Mike Bonin and Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“I suspect a similar resolution will come from the Community College Board as well,” said Zimmer, who spoke to Bonin about the city’s proposal. “This is about more than any specific election cycle than where money is coming from and who it’s going to and why.”

Zimmer said he didn’t plan to become a politician, but he said the board has the power to begin changing the system. “Now having been through it and enmeshed in it full throttle, it’s a fractured system. The effects of it are going to be long-lasting.”

Board member Ref Rodriguez, who unseated Bennett Kayser in a heated and expensive race in 2015, said, “I will support this resolution,” but he expressed concern about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows unbridled campaign contributions. “I’m interested in bringing to an end this kind of political climate. We are just tired of the elite having influences in our communities.”

Mónica Ratliff, who ran for school board in 2013 and faced a candidate who vastly outspent her, is now running for LA City Council. “We have to increase voter participation. The more people who get to vote the better it is, and as a society we can make sure that candidates without a lot of money are noticed.”

Board member George McKenna called his one time running for school board “one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life.” He said, “The attempt to change this process is heroic in its intent, but those who have learned to navigate the system may not want to change it.”

Carl Petersen, who is running against García, said during public comment, “Most, if not all, of you are recipients of special interest money. They are trying to influence how you do your job.”

Zimmer added, “This is a step that we need to take in collaboration with the City Council.”

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