The Billion Dollar Man
Los Angeles County, Calif.
It's a few minutes after noon, and spring is a month old here in the San Fernando Valley. Smog has sucked what seems like the last oxygen molecule from the air, air that an hour ago was filled with helicopters circling the interstate's bumper-to-bumper traffic. Now, the sky's empty except for a lone jet,a Boeing 737, wings flashing in the sunlight, wheels down, bearing in on Burbank Airport's main runway.
The cavalry has arrived.
On June 4, the nearby San Marino school district will askresidents to bump up property taxes to finance the sale of $34 million in bonds. Odds are, the district will lose. More than half the school bond issues in California lose. To win in this state, bonds must earn a "supermajority"--two-thirds of the votes cast. Such a threshold is a political Everest. No U.S. president has ever won the hearts of two out of every three voters; Bill Clinton won only 43 percent of the vote in 1992. And never mind that schools often have to beat organized opposition that can make the Boston Tea Party look like a kids' game of dress-up.
With the deck stacked against them, San Marino supporters have hired a political consultant as a campaign adviser. With the election weeks away, Oakland-based political organizer Larry Tramutola is winging his way to the Los Angeles suburb to make plans for the campaign's stretch run. A nationally known pro who tutored under legendary union organizer Cesar Chavez, Tramutola has helped put many top Democrats into office, including Clinton. Among the political consultants who hire out to schools, he is one of the best.
Tramutola is quite literally the billion dollar man. Since 1988, he has worked campaigns that have won more than $1.4 billion for schools. And he's on a hot streak. In the past year, he had a hand in passing bonds that accounted for almost half the $920 million raised locally for school construction in the state. "Larry is the guru," says Kathy Chiverton, a San Ramon Valley parent and leader of a bond campaign in that Bay Area district. "He is the word in school bond campaigns out here."
Not everyone cheers the rise of the hired gun in bond campaigns, though. Political consultants are modern Machiavellis who do and say anything to win, critics argue. That may be true. But in California, the ends may well justify the means.
The most famous political consultant in America today is James Carville. He was Bill Clinton's strategist in the 1992 election, and when pundits anointed him that victory's mastermind, the media fawned over the caricature of the Louisiana-born Carville as the "Ragin' Cajun," a populist kingmaker who wears jeans and talks in sound bites.
If Carville is spicy gumbo, then Larry Tramutola is a sharp chardonnay. A Colorado native, he came to the Golden State to attend Stanford University and never left. Stepping from the Burbank Airport into the sunlight, the 48-year-old is the picture ofCalifornia cool. He wears gray pleated pants, a tie splashed with color, but no sports coat. While Carville has breached this country's cult of celebrity with two national best-selling books since the 1992 elections, Tramutola has a reputation for ducking the spotlight. Among California consultants, he is considered one of the good guys, a pol who only takes on clients whom he believes in. "There's nothing more worthwhile that any of us can do than to pass a school bond," he tells school officials. "If it's successful, there's nothing that will do more to bring a community together. And it helps generations of children yet unborn."
Before heading to San Marino, Tramutola stops in nearby Glendale. School and community leaders there want to hire a consultant for a bond campaign, and they've asked for an interview. Arriving at the district's offices, Tramutola strides past the information clerk and rides the elevator to the building's top floor, the fourth. After years of working with schools, he knows that a district's top brass is inevitably quartered in the penthouse.
Tramutola is not the only consultant so intimately familiar with schools. Campaign pros became adjunct staff in many districts not long after a 1986 ballot initiative restored to schools the authority to raise money locally through bond issues, says Bob Blattner, who tracks bond votes statewide. Proposition 13, the tax-limit measure passed in 1978, had stripped schools of that power, and the return to the campaign trail proved tough. "They kept hitting their heads against the wall," says Blattner, who is a lobbyist with School Services of California, an education consulting and advocacy group. "Things weren't working. After the first couple of failures, people started realizing that the two-thirds hurdle is too high to be cleared by amateurs."
Tramutola is probably the leading consultant. "Everybody uses Larry now," says Paul Disario, a school official who has worked with Tramutola on bond votes for two districts. "He's sort of cornered the market."
In Glendale, Tramutola meets with school officials in a conference room with a panoramic view of the mountains. After some small talk, he takes up an orange marker, stands before an easel and a pad of paper, and delivers a lesson in politics. He begins with one of the most basic laws of elections: Most people don't vote. In Glendale's last municipal elections, 15 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. Assuming a similar turnout for a bond vote, the district's construction plans would be decided by as few as 12,000 of the district's 190,000 residents. Knowing this, Tramutola argues that bond campaigns should be aimed not at the community at large but at "likely voters": those who cast ballots regularly in local elections. "Remember, all the people who register to vote but don't vote are irrelevant," he tells the Glendale officials. He's drawn a circle on the easel paper to illustrate the universe of registered voters. Within the circle, he's drawn a pie-slice wedge that represents the likely voters. "You have to drive your message to this group."
Who are the people in this wedge? The answer, divined through computer analyses of voter histories, varies by district. Crunch the numbers in many Silicon Valley districts, and the most likely voters are so-called DINKS, double income couples with no kids, Tramutola says. In Oakland, older black males turn up as key. But unfortunately for schools, likely voters often turn out to be the residents most likely not to support a bond. They are older, usually 55 and up. They are white. They are often affluent. And their kids--if they had any--likely flew the nest years ago.
To woo such voters, Tramutola often builds campaigns as if he were courting the vote of his late father. Elections to him were sacred. "You could hold a special election on Christmas Day, and he would go to Midnight Mass the night before just so he could vote," Tramutola jokes. A Denver chemist, his father wanted facts, not rhetoric; fliers and direct mail could not win his vote, but a conversation might.
With his father in mind, Tramutola wages campaigns that break the rules of school politics. Rule No. 1: Parents are the key to winning bond votes. Think again. Parents make up only 15 percent to 20 percent of the likely voters in most districts, Tramutola says. Make parents volunteers, but don't count on them to carry an election. Rule No. 2: Technology sells. Wrong. Polls suggest that the community as a whole might favor technology, but likely voters are often older residents who think Bill Gates will ruin education. "I've never seen an electorate vote 'yes' on technology," Tramutola tells the Glendale officials.
Tramutola's campaigns also cut against the grain of California politics because they are grassroots, door-to-door efforts. He is a throwback to the era before campaigning in the state was done via the airwaves. A 30-second commercial won't sway the older voters, Tramutola argues. But a visit from a neighbor whose children sit in classrooms under leaky roofs might. "You've got to get people who are potential 'no' votes to vote 'yes,'" Tramutola says. "And the only way I know to do that is persuasion."
Tramutola's words fall on the Glendale officials like rain on the parched mountains outside. They make no commitments--they've interviewed another consultant--but they're intrigued. When the time comes to talk turkey, Tramutola says he'll run the campaign for $30,000, plus a negotiated bonus if the bond passes. California law bans the use of taxpayer money in partisan elections, so Glendale would have to pay his fee with private contributions. And one of the officials wants to know: What exactly will that fee cover?
"My brain," Tramutola says without hesitation. "It covers my brain."
As brash as that sounds, Tramutola's track record suggests that he is a bargain at any price. He's lost only two races in 29 local bond elections. One of those, a November $82 million bond issue in the San Ramon district, lost by one vote in a race where 28,000 residents showed up at the polls. Most of his success has come trolling for votes in fairly liberal Bay Area districts such as Oakland, San Francisco, and Palo Alto. But he broke into the Los Angeles market with wins in Manhattan Beach and South Pasadena in 1995. Some 80 percent of Manhattan Beach voters are Republican, and the district is an oceanside haven of wealthy doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood executives.
Superintendent Jerry Davis and district officials interviewed four or five consultants before hiring Tramutola. "I saw some pretty slick guys that people in my district would have seen through right away," he says. "You know, he reminded me of a Robert Kennedy. He's liberal, and my district's very conservative, but he was able to handle that. He's got that Kennedy mystique about him."
Tramutola was two years away from graduating Stanford when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. That same year, Cesar Chavez orchestrated a nationwide boycott of California grapes to protest the treatment ofthe industry's workers. Tramutola signed on with Chavez's United Farm Workers as a community organizer shortly after leaving college in 1970. Earning $5 a week, he traveled the state organizing protests and picking up invaluable political training from Chavez and his lieutenants."At times, you'd be in a room with black, white, Hispanic organizers--the very best talent in the country," Tramutola remembers.
In the early 1980s, now married and the father of two children, Tramutola left the union and settled in Oakland. He continued to do political work, but he also became a substitute teacher in the city's schools. "I had worked the toughest labor camps in the state, and I was bilingual," he says. "I wasn't about to let any 13-year-old intimidate me."
It was about that time that Tramutola first deployed his political skills in the education arena, doing grassroots work for a parent-involvement project initiated by Bill Honig, then the state's schools superintendent. Visiting districts statewide, he met many of the administrators who would later hire him to run bond campaigns.
Paul Disario was one of those. As an associate superintendent in Davis, he brought Tramutola on board to help the district run a 1989 bond campaign. As the November vote neared, board members itched to publicly answer criticisms of how the bond money would be divvied up among schools. Tramutola instead ordered the district's volunteers to phone residents whom the campaign had already identified as bond supporters. When those calls turned up few voters who even knew about the criticism, board members backed down, and the bond passed with 70 percent of the vote.
Tramutola saved the board from an impulsive decision that could have politically backfired, says Disario, now the business manager for the San Juan district, where Tramutola also has been hired. "If we hadn't brought him in, we probably would have lost."
Many of Tramutola's clients point to a similar singular moment when his insight saved their campaign. But in most districts, wins are the fruit harvested from months or years of work. Campaigns are won or lost long before a bond is put on the ballot, Tramutola argues. Some districts will put him on retainer--usually $3,000 per month--to help them sort out their facilities needs. After signing on, he insists on touring every school. "I can read your facilities plan," he tells the officials in Glendale, "but I don't know the stories behind it. I want to talk with your principals and teachers. I'll climb on the roof, I'll go in the boiler room. I want to smell the urine that's embedded in the wall in the boys' bathroom."
Armed with stories about schools in need in every neighborhood across a district, Tramutola builds a mail campaign to educate likely voters with information about facility needs at the school next door. In the six months before the Manhattan Beach school board even voted to put a bond on the ballot last year, the district fired off four direct-mail letters to the district's 10,000 likely voters. "If you've laid a solid enough foundation in the community and people understand what the needs are," Tramutola says, "the opposition has less fertile ground to grow. You have tilled that ground for yourself."
Key to any Tramutola campaign is the district planfor repairing or building schools. Without a strong plan that clearly states a district's needs, he argues, the vote is doomed. In Oakland, Tramutola had to create a plan from scratch in preparation for a 1994 vote on a $170 million bond. First, he pored through boxes of records to compile a list of unfilled repair orders from the district's more than 90 schools. Then, he interviewed each school's principal and many district-office staffers to identify code-compliance concerns and other problems. The plan that he eventually produced helped win over 85 percent of the voters.
With many districts, Tramutola urges clients to tailor their facilities plan with an eye to the particular prejudices of the likely voter. In response to pressure from athletic boosters or arts supporters, school officials might include money in a bond for stadium lights or a performing arts center. Voters, however, may consider such projects frivolous. "Everything in the plan has got to be something that the reasonable nonparent will say, 'Yeah, they need to fix these things,'" he says. "You've got to be able to justify everything. You just can't pander to boosters or theater people who want these things."
Common sense? "Most education people do not deal with the public as a whole," Tramutola says. "They're very isolated, very insulated. If they deal with the public, it's dealing with the parent. They're not dealing with the likely voters. If they were, these things would be common sense."
In San Marino, the leaders of the district's campaign are no political neophytes. They won a land-parcel-tax election in 1995 with more than 88 percent of the vote and have a database of likely voters and a strong volunteernetwork left over from that race. Hiring Tramutola was almost like taking out insurance for victory on the $34 million bond election, says Dave Destino, an attorney and leader of the bond committee. "He's not telling us much that we didn't know already."
Upon Tramutola's arrival, he and Destino and the other leaders of the campaign meet for dinner at a trendy cafe to plan the night's training session for volunteers. While the others order salads or crepes, Tramutola asks for two pieces of dry wheat toast. An afternoon double latt‚ is just now hitting his bloodstream, and he doesn't want a big meal to dilute the caffeine.
By 7:30, about 120 residents have gathered in the assembly hall of Oneonta Community Church for the training. Ties are loosened after a long day's work, and a few parents cradle infants. A handful of older folks have showed up, but most of the volunteers look to be 50 or younger. Settling into chairs at tables divided according to voting precincts, they skim through folders of materials that include canvassing instructions, a script outlining their pitch to voters, and absentee ballots.
State law allows absentee ballots to be filed even if a voter is not sick or away from home. In 1984, Tramutola and other Democrats organized a now legendary mail-in effort to help then San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein fight a recall vote. Brigades of volunteers set up ironing boards at supermarkets and shopping malls and handed out more than 61,000 absentee ballots. Feinstein won in a walk.
After an introduction by Destino, Tramutola stands, the teacher before his students. In the next half-hour, he will pass along wisdom accumulated from his quarter century in politics. "These are the toughest elections in the country," he begins. In San Ramon, he says, we won the votes but lost the election. "I can't tell you how defeated that community and those parents and those teachers and those administrators feel. They feel as though the community doesn't support them. They feel devastated. And they got 66.666 percent of the vote. There are very few politicians who run for office who get that percentage of the vote."
In a few days, these volunteers will fan out and go door-to-door. The image is one of politics at its purest. Campaign volunteers will walk tree-lined streets in a model American suburb. The doors they will knock on will open to large colonial, English Tudor, and California ranch homes with neatly trimmed lawns in front and pools out back. There, the volunteers will win votes by virtue of their firm handshakes and noble cause.
They will carry their scripts, but Tramutola urges them to speak of their own frustrations with school facilities. "What's powerful is what motivates you to come here tonight. I could never write that into a script. I don't know what motivates you. It could be horrible science labs at the high school, and you have a kid who's really interested in science, but you have no idea how he'll be able to do a lab with those facilities. Is that what motivates you?
"When you talk to people, bring out what you have in your heart."
Tramutola could easily be preaching from the "public engagement" manuals that educators often turn to when they court support. Such guides urge school officials to build the public's confidence in schools, to embrace the community's suggestions, and to aim for consensus. School officials who follow such advice--and many who have eventually become Tramutola clients--want to win over the entire community, to pull every single individual they know into the "yes" column.
But Tramutola's campaigns are less about inspiring warm feelings for schools than they are about the mechanics of getting votes. With many clients, he has to fight their impulse to spur districtwide debate. The key to victoryis not a blanket appeal to the public, he argues, but a surgical strike that delivers a carefully crafted message to likely voters. In such a strategy, volunteers are not so much missionaries as they are miners scouting for valuable ore. "Our job is to extract every single vote," he tells the volunteers. "Our concern is whether we will get enough 'yeses' to vote to be able to overcome the people who are going to vote 'no' naturally. Our concern isn't, 'Gee, we've got to get a big debate going on in the community.'"
The key to canvassing is discipline and precision, he tells the volunteers. They will hit the streets armed with lists of likely voters generated from the campaign's computer database. The list will skip three and four houses at a time, Tramutola says, but stick to it. "All of you will get frustrated," he warns. "You'll say, 'I know that person in that house. I know they'll be supportive. We carpool. Or we play soccer together.' Don't worry about that right now." As for those who say they oppose the bond, Tramutola says, "Forget them. If somebody says they're a 'no,' don't argue with them. Move on."
The undecided voter who opens the door will hear a lot about the district's crumbling schools but little about the price of fixing them up. The script that each volunteer will carry emphasizes the age of the school buildings and the basic nature of the repair needs. But it purposefully makes no mention of the bond's price tag or the boost in property taxes--$77 per $100,000 of assessed value--that comes with the bond. You should answer questions about money, Tramutola tells the volunteers, but you should not introduce the subject. "I don't want anyone to think that we're trying to be obscure or dishonest here; we're just focusing on the need."
While Tramutola is ostensibly training volunteers to be advocates for the bond, he is also teaching them a cardinal rule of politics: Stay on message. "These elections are not won by money or dollars," he explains, "they're won by explaining what the needs are.
"Talk about the need, talk about the plan. This is not the 'X million' dollar bond. It's the bond measure to repair and renovate the schools. Lead with need as opposed to money."
Nor should volunteers defend the district against charges that its teachers are overpaid, its administrators corrupt, and its bureaucracy bloated. "We don't have to fight them on those issues," Tramutola warns. "That's not our job. Our job is to talk about the bond."
As schools become more skilled political practitioners, they face some of the same scrutiny that candidates face about campaign finances and strategies. Some of these criticisms came up during the San Ramon bond campaign. In an editorial, the San Ramon Valley Times praised Tramutola, but said, "We worry about having all elections become a duel of professionals." Meanwhile, the bond's opposition cried foul over the campaign's spending--about $100,000, or almost $5 per vote, according to the Valley Times. They also questioned contributions from corporations outside the district, arguing that these businesses should not influence the race.
The campaign itself, opponents argued, hyped horror stories of leaky roofs, dry rot, and crowded classrooms. Claiming the bond was poorly planned and padded, they asked for a formal debate to make their case. Campaign organizers, however, declined--heeding the advice of Tramutola.
Mike Arata, one of the leading opponents of the San Ramon bond, argues that Tramutola and other consultants are "profiteers" hired to construct slick campaigns that tug at voters' heartstrings while hiding a district's failings--bad teaching and financial mismanagement chief among them. "If schools did what they were supposed to be doing, there would be no need for political agents such as Mr. Tramutola," he argues.
Arata has a point. Anti-tax sentiments may drive bond opposition in any given district, but public disaffection with schools feeds it. Generally, districts perceived as doing a good job educating children have less difficulty passing a bond than others. Worrisome, too, is the intrusion of big-league politics--and money--into school communities. To pay for costly campaigns, schools sometimes tap construction companies, architects, and other vendors that profit from expanded school building and renovation. While legal, such contributions smack of undue influence.
Also, the practice of targeting individual voters and eschewing public debates can make politics seem less an exercise of democracy than a game of manipulating votes. Advocates who believe in their cause take every opportunity to spread their gospel, so why did campaign organizers in San Ramon refuse a debate?
Tramutola and other school officials agree that politics taken too far could pose problems for schools. Public dollars cannot go for political means, they say, and school officials must be vigilant that campaign contributors do not influence their policy decisions.
But if California schools have lost their political innocence, they make no apologies. Chaste campaigning done on a shoestring and without consultants might satisfy the reformers who cluck about politics as usual. But it would do nothing to help rebuild falling-down schools. With enrollment booming at a rate that can fill a classroom an hour, facility needs in the state's K-12 system top $11 billion. Given such demands, it's almost irresponsible for schools not to hire pros to run their bond campaigns, says Bob Blattner of School Services. "These guys are miracle workers, and it takes a miracle to win these things."
More than a century old, the supermajority required to pass bonds is defended as protection for homeowners--homeowners who could be saddled with higher property taxes that renters approve at the polls. It's also seen as a roadblock to prevent one generation from imposing taxes and debt on the next.
But because of the supermajority, California's bond elections--unlike almost every other in the country--impose the will of the minority. Countless polls show that the public will pay higher taxes for better education. Votes on school bonds in California prove that. Of the 202 general obligation bonds that lost in the state in the past decade, only 35 failed to capture the majority of votes cast.Indeed, if the two-thirds requirement were dropped to a simple majority, more than 90 percent of the bonds proposed over that time would have passed and pumped billions more into school construction.
This tyranny of the minority troubles Tramutola. He's managed to even the odds and beat it almost every time, but the San Ramon race still bugs him. He has run the race in his mind dozens of time, and each time, he concludes the campaign was perfect--including the decision to duck the debate. We were too busy, he says. Why waste time on anything that doesn't improve your chances of reaching two-thirds? he argues. "Ninety percent of the people at a debate already have their minds made up. It's not as though it's getting broadcast to undecided voters. Those people who go to a Rotary Club debate or a Kiwanis debate have already got their minds made up. So why give your opposition the forum? Let them do the work to get their message out.
"The ground ain't even here. It's two-thirds. If it were a simple majority vote, it would be a different story. The ground is not even."
Tramutola will hop the Oakland-Burbank jet many more times as San Marino's June 4 vote nears. The campaign will identify hundreds more likely "yes" voters, it willignore hundreds more likely "no" voters, and eventually will spend about $60,000. And if it ends like most Tramutola campaigns, the bond will pass.