The Money Flowed, But Only Some Campaigns Cashed In
Last week's California elections dispensed a golden rule for school activists and politicians: Money matters, but not always.
Cash proved important in passing a ballot measure to end most bilingual education, and in killing one that would have limited school districts' administrative spending. Teachers' unions also joined their labor brethren nationwide to chip in at least $20 million to beat a proposal that would have have made it harder to collect dues for political purposes.
But money wasn't the answer for Al Checci, the airline tycoon seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Mr. Checci, who had promised to boost state school aid to the national average, finished second in his race, despite spending more than $30 million from his own fortune.
"You can't win an election without money," said Kim Alexander, the president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit voter-education group in Sacramento. "But you can't win with money alone."
Contributions to both sides of the education initiatives climaxed in the final weeks before California's June 2 balloting. So much political advertising was purchased that television stations even ran out of air time to sell to some campaigns.
Proposition 226--which would have required labor unions in the state, including the politically potent teachers' unions, to obtain members' written permission annually to use their money for political spending--was seen as a challenge to union clout and sparked a coast-to-coast battle.
Between May 16 and June 2, nearly $3 million was collected to defeat the measure. The American Federation of Teachers donated $85,000 and the National Education Association gave $30,000 in that period.
All of the time, energy, and money that went into defeating the measure diluted advocacy on other school-related fronts, many observers said.
In total, Proposition 226 foes raised at least $22 million, compared with some $4 million collected by supporters. That may have turned the tide in favor of the unions, which overcame voter support of 3-to-1 this spring to beat the measure with 53.5 percent of the vote last week.
Midway through balloting, Kristy Khachigian, a spokeswoman for "Yes on 26," bemoaned, "You can't turn on the TV without seeing one of their ads."
But last-minute money didn't always guarantee success.
In late May, Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan launched a self-financed $250,000 ad blitz to back Proposition 227, a measure that would virtually eliminate bilingual education.
In response, A. Jerrold Perenchio, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Spanish-language TV network Univision Communications Inc. in Los Angeles, put up $1.5 million for a barrage of anti-227 ads.
But in the end, the measure won, 61 percent to 39 percent.
Opponents of Proposition 223, which would have capped districts' administrative spending at 5 percent of their budgets, had trouble spending the $1.7 million they had set aside for last-minute ads.
"We weren't able to buy spots in Bakersfield six to eight weeks ago," said Bonnie Mertus, who directed the winning campaign against the measure. All of the available air time in that market had been sold to other campaigns, she said. "And Bakersfield is in the middle of nowhere."
Still, by beginning two months before the balloting, anti-223 forces placed enough ads to get their message across. The measure lost, receiving 46 percent of the vote.
Much of the advertising logjam was blamed on Mr. Checci, who blanketed the state with television before the primary.
But Mr. Checci's victorious opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, a career politico whose campaign spent about $9 million, repeatedly pledged, "I have experience that money can't buy." Voters bought it. Mr. Davis, who wants stronger teacher evaluations and contracts that commit parents to helping their children do homework, won 58 percent of the Democratic vote.
The pre-election spending spree also affected school interests in other ways, observers said.
Sue Burr, a co-director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, a nonprofit research group in Sacramento, said the elections forced her group to delay a $1 million teacher-recruiting drive.
The airwaves were so congested with political ads, she said, that there was no room for public service announcements encouraging qualified adults to join the teaching corps.
Others wonder if teachers' unions haven't weakened themselves for the fall's general-election campaign.
"There was a strategy to get unions to spend a huge amount of money in the June primary so not much would be left over in November," asserted Bruce Fuller, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a University of California-based research consortium. "It's a brilliant Napoleonic strategy, but it will leave voters less informed."
Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 17Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as The Money Flowed, But Only Some Campaigns Cashed In