Will The Key Endorsements For LAUSD's Open 'Latino Seat' Go To White Candidates?

Cynthia Gonzalez, a principal at a high school at the Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South L.A., speaks to a meeting of the East Area Progressive Democrats on Nov. 27, 2018. Gonzalez is running for the vacant L.A. Unified School Board seat once held by Ref Rodriguez. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

This coming spring, voters will choose a new representative for the Los Angeles Unified School Board. Like the vast majority of registered voters in the area he or she will represent, seven of the 10 candidates running in the special election are Latino.

In fact, the peculiar borders of LAUSD Board District 5, which snake through portions of both northeast and southeast L.A., were re-drawn to give a Latino a strong chance to win.

But this year, some Latino candidates are concerned that the three most important — and lucrative — endorsements in LAUSD politics will end up going to white candidates.

In recent years, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and the Service Employees International Union Local 99 (SEIU) have doled out millions to boost candidates they support.

Only one endorsement — SEIU's — has been formally announced so far; UTLA is set to decide Wednesday night which candidate to back in the March primary.

Still, some Latino candidates fear being locked out of all three endorsements — and the outside spending that comes with them.

'WE'RE GOING BACKWARDS'

Concerns about a white candidate representing a largely Latino district are why I ended up at a Coco's in Highland Park last Friday night, sharing a slice of apple pie à la mode with a handful of rival LAUSD School Board candidates.

The five Latino hopefuls invited me to a meeting they'd called to vent their frustrations about the endorsement process. It was an unusual, if not unprecedented, meeting.

Around the table: Bell City Councilman Nestor Enrique Valencia, East L.A. College adjunct professor Ana Cubas, LAUSD principal Cynthia Gonzalez, political science professor Chamba Sánchez and county arts commissioner David Valdez. Eduardo Cisneros, who dropped out of the race earlier that day, also attended.

To these candidates, the prospect that Latinos might be shut out of the three largest endorsements in the race for what some believe is a "Latino seat" ought to put L.A.'s progressive credentials in question.

"This is 2018," said Cubas, who lost a close city council race five years ago. "November was a historic election. We had an unprecedented number of women of color, especially, being elected to office. But here in the city of L.A., it's like we're going backwards in time."

A group of six current or former candidates for the L.A. Unified School Board's open seat in Board District 5 meet at Coco's Restaurant in Highland Park on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018: LAUSD principal Cynthia Gonzalez; NALEO organizer Eduardo Cisneros, who recently withdrew from the race; political science professor Chamba Sánchez; public affairs consultant Ana Cubas and Bell City Council member Nestor Enrique Valencia. (Photo submitted to KPCC/LAist by Lewis Myers)

WHY THESE ENDORSEMENTS MATTER

Campaign finance rules limit LAUSD board candidates from accepting contributions larger than $1,200. But independent political groups face no such limits — on fundraising or on spending.

For a candidate, the endorsements of either of these groups come with an implicit promise: We can't legally coordinate our spending with you, but we'll spend far more to support your campaign from the outside than you can raise on your own.

In 2017, CCSA, UTLA and SEIU Local 99 shattered records for independent expenditures, doling out nearly $15 million to boost the school board candidates they endorsed — and to attack their opponents.

In addition, the charter association and the teachers union are often spending against each others' favored candidates. In 2017, CCSA's $9.7 million in spending on three different LAUSD races was more than double what UTLA spent.

No candidate can beat that kind of spending on their own.

WILL LATINO CANDIDATES BE SHUT OUT?

While United Teachers Los Angeles' endorsement is not yet final, the teachers union's leadership is said to have recommended supporting Jackie Goldberg, a local political icon who was a teacher in Compton, an LAUSD board member, L.A. City Council member and state assemblywoman. (Goldberg's campaign, by the way, announced another endorsement Tuesday: civil rights legend Dolores Huerta.)

Already, the third-largest spender — SEIU, which represents some non-teaching LAUSD employees — has endorsed Heather Repenning, a longtime aide to Mayor Eric Garcetti and former member of the L.A. Board of Public Works. (SEIU spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos noted the union's membership — which is largely women of color — votes on endorsements and felt Repenning was the best possible "coalition builder.")

It's not clear who's in line for CCSA's lucrative endorsement. There's speculation that Allison Bajracharya, who recently left an administrative post at the Camino Nuevo network of charter schools, has the inside track.

"At this time, an endorsement has not been made," said Brittney Chord Parmley, a spokesperson for the charter association's political arm, CCSA Advocates.

If Repenning, Goldberg and Bajracharya win these endorsements outright, that means the three largest independent expenditure groups will have backed white candidates.

But there's a wild card in the picture: Huntington Park City Councilwoman Graciela Ortiz. As a counselor at an LAUSD high school, Ortiz is a UTLA member — and was once even active on the union's political committee. Ortiz also hasn't ruled out accepting charter school support, which may leave enough of an opening for CCSA. (Ortiz did not attend the candidate meeting at Coco's on Friday night due to a scheduling conflict, she said.)

When I asked Ortiz whether she felt she was still in the running for either the CCSA or UTLA endorsement, her response was diplomatic.

"It's really on them," she said. "It's their process. I can't control that."

Another possibility: in the past, independent expenditure groups who couldn't settle on one candidate have made multiple endorsements in the primary.

The candidates at Coco's weren't only frustrated about the undeclared endorsements that bring the promise of big spending. Several of them expressed frustration that a long list of trade unions announced their endorsements — many of them for Repenning — without holding an open endorsement process.

SOURCES: 1992 map courtesy of L.A. City Archives; current map courtesy of LAUSD

'THIS ODDLY-SHAPED DUMBBELL OF A DISTRICT'

The boundaries of LAUSD Board District 5 are deeply intertwined with race.

The seat was redrawn to more-or-less its present boundaries in 2002 to ensure a majority of registered voters in the district would be Latino; those new lines encompass heavily Latino cities southeast of downtown L.A.: Huntington Park, Bell, Maywood, Cudahy and South Gate. Two-thirds of the students in BD5 attend schools in the southeast cities.

But there's a rub: voter turnout in BD5 elections is low in the southeast — and highest in the district's northern, racially mixed and gentrifying neighborhoods like Los Feliz, Silver Lake and Eagle Rock.

Even though the map was re-drawn to be a so-called "Latino seat," some of the candidates at Friday's meeting said the boundaries leave candidates from less-white areas of the seat at a disadvantage.

"Everyone I show this map to just drops their jaw," said candidate David Valdez. "It's a little shameful this district has been spread out in the way it has to weaken representation."

Major endorsements in BD5 races — from UTLA, CCSA and SEIU — have gone to both Latinos and non-Latinos in recent years. So has the seat itself: in 1995 — when BD5's boundaries snaked into the East Valley — Eagle Rock resident David Tokofsky won his first of three terms in the seat. In 2007, Yolie Flores Aguilar took the seat. Four years later, Bennett Kayser replaced her. Ref Rodriguez ousted Kayser in 2015.

But as candidate Nestor Enrique Valencia pointed out, "All of those people lived in the northeast or moved into the northeast. To garner the support you need to win in this oddly shaped dumbbell of a district — to get that northeast support is big."

"If you live in the Southeast," added Valencia, who's from Bell, "just forget about it."

THE CHARTER SCHOOL SUBTEXT

There's another layer of political tension in BD5: the debate over charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently from school districts.

The frustrated Latino candidates at Coco's were ideologically diverse on this issue. A few of the candidates sitting around the table said they'd be open to the California Charter Schools Association's support.

Others, not so much.

Decrying what she called the association's "divisive" agenda, Gonzalez bowed out of the CCSA endorsement process. Sánchez, who had joked at a recent candidate forum that it was unlikely charter school groups would back a former union organizer, said he didn't want pro-charters groups' support anyway.

Then there's LAUSD teacher Erika Alvarez, who recently withdrew from the race; she skipped the Friday night coven at Coco's because she felt the meeting's purpose was to pressure CCSA to endorse one of them.

Alvarez, a teacher at an LAUSD high school in South Gate, said Latino representation is important, in part, because seeing Latino elected officials sends a vital message to young children of color: "You can't be what you can't see."

But in this race, Alvarez thinks opposing charter schools is more important. Charter schools, she believes (and she's not alone here), suck enrollment and funding away from other LAUSD schools, which serves a majority Latino student body. She wondered why Latino candidates would scramble to accept the endorsement of the charter association.

"You can't accept that," Alvarez said, "and not be introspective enough and say, 'Hey, how are these charter schools affecting these areas? What will happen to public schooling as a result? Are they overwhelmingly hurting children of color?'"

Alvarez said she will run again for the seat in 2020. But for now, she's backing the candidate expected to receive UTLA's endorsement, Jackie Goldberg.


UPDATE, Dec. 28: Two weeks after this story was originally published, CCSA Advocates issued a statement announcing they would not endorse an LAUSD board candidate during the March primary.

"Community voices in this District have been under-represented in past elections as demonstrated by low voter turnout," wrote the group's spokeswoman, Brittney Chord Parmley. She later added, "This election is an opportunity for the entire community to engage in a dialogue about what it will take to provide an outstanding public education to all Los Angeles students."


CORRECTION: This story originally described Ana Cubas as a public affairs consultant. She says a more accurate description of her occupation is as an adjunct professor at East L.A. College and a non-profit executive.


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