School & District Management

Candidates for Los Angeles Mayor Talk Up Better Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — April 18, 2001 4 min read
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The mayor of Los Angeles has no formal power to make policy for the city’s public schools. But don’t tell that to the two candidates who will square off in a June 5 runoff election to lead the city—or to the voters who will cast the deciding ballots.

Democrats Antonio Villaraigosa and James K. Hahn each captured about one- quarter of all votes cast in the election’s first round last week, far outpacing the field of 15 candidates vying to replace Mayor Richard J. Riordan, a Republican, this summer.

With education topping the list of voters’ concerns, it’s no wonder that Mr. Villaraigosa, a former speaker of the California Assembly, and Mr. Hahn, who is the four-term Los Angeles city attorney, ran campaigns chock-full of school-related promises.

Moreover, one of them will replace an outgoing mayor who inserted himself into school policy by backing a winning slate of school board candidates for the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1998. Mr. Riordan repeated the effort again, though less successfully, leading up to last week’s balloting, in which three school board seats were up for grabs.

“To some extent, they’re disingenuous,” Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior scholar at the University of Southern California’s school of policy, planning, and development, said of the mayoral candidates, “because the mayor has no direct control over the school system, unless they do what Mayor Riordan did, and use the bully pulpit.”

“But I guess we have Riordan to thank, because now, every mayor must have an education agenda,” Ms. Jeffe said.

With most of the votes from the April 10 election tallied late last week, Mr. Villaraigosa, a former organizer for the Los Angeles teachers’ union, had garnered 30 percent of the ballots. The 47-year- old father of four captured 62 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polling conducted by The Los Angeles Times.

Hispanics accounted for 20 percent of all votes cast in an election that saw a 35 percent turnout of eligible voters. If elected, Mr. Villaraigosa would be the city’s first Hispanic mayor in 130 years.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hahn, who is 50 years old and has two children, picked up 25 percent of the votes. Mr. Hahn, who led the city’s successful lawsuit against tobacco-industry interests, garnered 71 percent of the African-American vote. Overall, blacks accounted for 14 percent of the votes cast.

Steve Soboroff, a businessman backed by Mayor Riordan, finished third, with 21 percent of the votes cast, which put him out of the running.

Voting Patterns

The newspaper’s exit polling found that education was the most important issue to voters who cast ballots for either Mr. Villaraigosa or Mr. Hahn.

Both candidates pledged to forge stronger relations between the city and the 723,000-student school district on issues such as school construction, after-school programs, and shared use of school and city facilities.

“I don’t think they differ that much [on education],” said Day Higuchi, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the city’s affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. The local union is supporting Mr. Villaraigosa.

“The understanding of education, however, is much stronger with Antonio—well, because he worked with us,” Mr. Higuchi added. “He’s seen the problems up close and personal.”

But Julie Wong, a spokeswoman for the Hahn campaign, said that her candidate has offered more details about how he would work with the schools. In addition, she argued, he has a better understanding of what a mayor can, and cannot, do.

“Jim’s been in the city government for 20 years. He is fairly realistic and understands what the limitations are as mayor,” Ms. Wong said. “He thinks the city can work in better partnership with the school board.”

The winner of the race for mayor will be sworn in on July 2. In the meantime, some observers say, the race leading up to the June runoff could get fierce.

“You’ve got a couple of street fighters here,” Mr. Higuchi said. “Both intend not to have a nasty campaign, but someone will fire the first shot, and neither will refrain from punching back.”

Working Together

The race for mayor will not be the only runoff election. One of the three school board seats contested last week failed to produce a winner.

School board incumbent Valerie Fields won 38 percent of the votes to earn a spot in the runoff. Her challenger will be Marlene Canter, who runs the Canter & Associates teacher-training firm with her husband, Lee. She drew 33 percent of the votes.

Mayor Riordan had endorsed Ms. Fields, a former elementary school teacher, earlier this year. He pulled his backing, though, after she supported an 11.5 percent pay raise for teachers.

In that race, which saw candidates raise a record $2.3 million, Mr. Riordan went on to support—financially and otherwise—real estate developer Matthew S. Rodman. But Mr. Rodman managed to collect just 20 percent of votes and is out of the race.

In another board race, Jose Huizar, a lawyer who was endorsed by the mayor, easily defeated Ralph Cole, taking 75 percent of the votes.

In the third contest, incumbent Julie Korenstein defeated her Riordan-backed challenger, small-business owner Tom Riley, taking in 55 percent of the votes compared with his 45 percent tally.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as Candidates for Los Angeles Mayor Talk Up Better Schools

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