In early February, ads from the union that represents Los Angeles Unified School District teachers started arriving in voters' mailboxes. The glossy, two-sided mailers herald the district's progress and the union's vision — and prominently feature the beaming face of a school board member.
United Teachers Los Angeles officials say that invitation is part of an ongoing pro-union marketing campaign. UTLA's rival — the California Charter Schools Association's political action committee — says the mailer is clearly a pro-Zimmer ad, and thus proof that the union is skirting campaign finance rules.
One of Zimmer's opponents in the March 7 primary, Nick Melvoin, and a charter association employee have filed separate complaints with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission accusing union officials of trying to present a campaign ad as "issue advocacy." That designation allows UTLA to avoid reporting how much money it spent on the brochure before next week's vote.
A senior UTLA official dismisses the charge, saying the union approved the marketing campaign back in August, and that it features a variety of people.
Melvoin insists that UTLA is playing fast and loose with the campaign reporting law.
“I’ve seen video ads, bus benches, Facebook ads ... that have said, ‘Call Steve Zimmer and thank him,'" he says. "It's really political spending that's done through their issues PAC."
An issues PAC is a separate class of political action committee that doesn't need to report its finances as often as other politically-active groups so long as it sticks to advocating for issues or ballot measures in its area of interest.
Other UTLA ads feature Imelda Padilla, the union-endorsed candidate in the east San Fernando Valley.
Melvoin and CCSA Advocates, the charter association's political arm, argue these ads are in fact "independent expenditures" — outside spending to influence the outcome of a race conducted without coordinating with any candidate committees. Within 45 days of an election, any outside group making an independent expenditure has to report it within 24 hours. UTLA has not made such a disclosure.
Cecily Myaert-Cruz, a UTLA vice president, calls the allegations "outrageous." She says union officials green-lit the $400,000 marketing push at the beginning of the school year, well before election season. And she notes that the bus ads, bench ads, digital ads and billboards don't only feature Zimmer and Padilla, but other teachers and union allies as well.
"I think it’s a distraction when we are a week away from an election," Myaert-Cruz says, "when we know that CCSA and the billionaires have been funding the campaign of Nick Melvoin."
Melvoin and leaders of CCSA Advocates say they are trying to cast doubt on UTLA's claim that the union has been outspent in what has already proven to be an expensive campaign.
"We don’t actually know that we’re the source of the biggest amount of spending because they’re not reporting all of theirs," says CCSA Advocates Executive Director Gary Borden. "That’s, in part, the purpose of the complaint."
UTLA's independent expenditures have totaled more than $1.3 million in the race. Pro-charter school groups — which endorsed Melvoin and fellow Zimmer challenger Allison Holdorff Polhill — have spent more than $2.7 million in outside money.
The Fair Political Practices Commission has received the charter association's complaint but has not yet decided whether to open an investigation, according to a spokesman.
A Melvoin spokeswoman says his campaign had also filed a complaint with the City of Los Angeles' Ethics Commission, which tracks citywide candidates' campaign finances.