Education

How to campaign in a wide-open, low-turnout LA Unified school board race

Saul Mejia snaps a photo of L.A. school board candidate Patty Lopez's supporters at a meeting in the community room of a Panorama City mall on Sunday, March 5.
Saul Mejia snaps a photo of L.A. school board candidate Patty Lopez's supporters at a meeting in the community room of a Panorama City mall on Sunday, March 5.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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Loud barking answered Kelly Gonez's knock at the door of a home on a quiet street in Los Angeles' Sunland neighborhood.

"The dogs are home," shrugged Gonez, a candidate for L.A. school board, as what sounded like several canines yipped behind the closed door — only the second she tried on this quiet Sunday morning.

After unanswered knocks at the doors of another three homes, finally, a voter came to the door; he'd already mailed in his ballot. "Do you happen to remember if you voted for Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez?" she asked, making sure to add she's "the only teacher on the ballot" for the East San Fernando Valley school board seat.

"I think I did," he replied. Gonez marked him down on her list as a "strong 'yes.'"

It's hard for any candidate for the L.A. Unified School Board to get district residents to vote for them. In the March 2015 primary, for example, just 10 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

Candidates for the East Valley seat in Tuesday's primary face an added challenge: breaking out of a crowded field. Vying to replace Mónica Ratliff, who's giving up her spot on the board to run for city council, are six candidates: Gonez, Imelda Padilla, Patty Lopez, Gwendolyn Posey, Araz Parseghian and José Sandoval.

"This is a really close race," Gonez told campaign volunteers on Tuesday. "There are six people running, and there are some people who still don't know there's an election on Tuesday."

Presuming no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, only two of those six candidates will advance to the runoff election in May.

But Gonez and Padilla both have bigger assets on their side than campaign volunteers door-knocking and phone-banking.

L.A. school board candidate Kelly Gonez, left, addresses campaign volunteers before a day of door-knocking on Sunday, March 5.
L.A. school board candidate Kelly Gonez, left, addresses campaign volunteers before a day of door-knocking on Sunday, March 5.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

The California Charter Schools Association's political arm has endorsed Gonez and spent more than $609,000 for mailers and phone calls telling voters to support her. While Gonez cannot legally coordinate with the association about how to spend that money, the total of these "independent expenditures" is roughly five times larger than the $124,000 Gonez's campaign has raised on its own.

Padilla won the endorsement of another deep-pocketed player: L.A.'s main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles; the charter association's primary political rival. UTLA has put up most of the $400,000 in independent expenditures that have supported Padilla — also about five times what the candidate has raised on her own.

(For comparison: Parseghian is the only other candidate to report any contributions in the race; he's raised around $42,000.)

All of this money is pouring in for an election in which Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, expects turnout to hover around 15 percent.

"In an ironic sense, [school board elections] cost so much money because they're so low turnout," he said.

Carolina Salguero, bottom right, a volunteer for L.A. school board candidate Imelda Padilla, makes a campaign phone call in the campaign's headquarters in Padilla's childhood home in Pacoima. Family photos of the candidate, left, and her siblings cover the walls of the living room.
Carolina Salguero, bottom right, a volunteer for L.A. school board candidate Imelda Padilla, makes a campaign phone call in the campaign's headquarters in Padilla's childhood home in Pacoima. Family photos of the candidate, left, and her siblings cover the walls of the living room.

Guerra explains that since L.A.'s campaign finance rules limit direct contributions to campaigns, candidates rely on outside groups to spread the word about the election and their candidacy — even though they don't get to control the message.

"When you think of how large a political district in the L.A. Unified School District— it's actually bigger than a Congressional district," Guerra said. "The only way you're going to communicate to a lot of people is with a lot of money."

The independent expenditures have polarized the nuanced policy debate Padilla and Gonez have said they hoped to have.

The charter association's political arm, CCSA Advocates, has spent $120,000 on ads opposing Padilla. A former field deputy for L.A. City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, Padilla has argued East Valley stands as proof the charter schools and district-run schools have coexisted successfully.

"A lot of people are upset that I have unapologetically made myself out to be the labor candidate," Padilla said, adding, "My narrative was, 'I am not anti-charter, it just happens that CCSA is anti-collective bargaining.'"

Similarly, Gonez — a seventh grade science teacher at the Crown Preparatory Academy charter school in South L.A. — got into the race hoping she might find ways to bridge the charter-union divide. Instead, she said teachers union leaders won't take her calls.

"Educating kids is hard enough," she said. "Why not, instead of making it harder by fighting with each other, could we actually work together so we can all do our jobs better?"

Still, Gonez and Padilla are dominating the money race. Parseghian, Posey and Sandoval have seen no outside spending either for or against him.

However, a sixth candidate could be this race’s wild card.

L.A. school board candidate Patty Lopez, right, speaks during a meeting of her supporters on Sunday, March 5.
L.A. school board candidate Patty Lopez, right, speaks during a meeting of her supporters on Sunday, March 5.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Patty Lopez has shocked the Democratic Party establishment before. In 2014, during her first campaign for public office, she unseated incumbent State Assembly member Raul Bocanegra for one term.

On paper, Lopez is a long-shot, having raised next to nothing for her campaign — less than the $1,000 she'd be required to disclose, she said. Lopez is making do with donated campaign signs, flyers and door-knockers. She told a small gathering of supporters in a cold, spartan community room at a mall in Panorama City on Sunday night that she needs their help spreading the word on social media.

Nevertheless, CCSA Advocates has targeting her with $89,000 in negative independent expenditures — including a last-minute mailer reported last Friday.

“That means they do not have a strong candidate," Lopez said. "They’re willing to do whatever they can do to put people down.”

Some East Valley politicos simply think the charter association doesn't want to make the same mistake as the Democratic establishment in 2014.

But in a low-turnout election, could Lopez's name recognition and community ties alone be enough to win her a spot in May's runoff?

Mail-in ballots in the primary election must be postmarked by Tuesday. Polls will close at 8 p.m.

A total of thirteen candidates are vying for three open seats on the L.A. Unified school board on Tuesday — including a seat representing central and east L.A. and a seat representing west L.A. and part of the Southwest San Fernando Valley. Click here to read candidates' answers to KPCC's school board survey.