The landslide victory of Inglewood school board incumbent Rose Mary Benjamin over challenger Wanda Brown this week has added momentum to a fledgling recall movement against rival school board members, leaders of the movement said.
Benjamin's reelection by a margin of more than 3-1 also raised questions about the political clout of Inglewood Mayor Ed Vincent, who supported Brown, and signaled voter dissatisfaction with the firing of Supt. Rex Fortune by board members aligned with the mayor, Benjamin supporters said.
The runoff result could lead to a power shift on the school board, depending on the outcome of the recall movement and the resolution of a felony charge against another board member.
Board members aligned with Vincent have continually declined to be interviewed. Vincent could not be reached for comment after the final election results were in, but he said on Tuesday that he hoped to be a peacemaker between the board factions no matter who won.
More Than 75%
Benjamin polled 4,117 votes--more than 75%--in Tuesday's runoff election, while Brown garnered 1,360. Voter turnout was 12%, including absentee ballots--even lower than the 15% turnout for the April primary in which Brown led Benjamin.
The April primary installed a new majority of Vincent-supported members, incumbents Caroline Coleman and William Dorn and newcomer Ernest Shaw. Soon afterward they voted to fire Fortune. They did not give a reason, but Fortune said he was fired for refusing to go along with Vincent's hiring demands.
Fortune supporters say Vincent and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn--William Dorn's uncle--are trying to get control of the school system and its 1,200 jobs. Both have repeatedly denied the allegation.
In both the general election and the runoff, Vincent backed Brown, who would have added a fourth vote to the new majority. In addition to writing endorsements and paying for Brown campaign literature, Vincent rented a suite for what was supposed to be an election night victory party at the Airport Park hotel in Inglewood.
Surprised by Results
In an interview at the hotel, Brown said she was surprised by the runoff results.
"I expected it at least to be close," she said, surrounded by supporters who included board member Shaw and Inglewood City Councilman Virgle Benson, another Vincent ally.
Brown said she has no plans to challenge the results but will do "whatever I can for any of the board members facing a recall."
Brown's defeat may prove fatal to the new board majority. Dorn faces recall and Coleman goes to a preliminary hearing next week on a felony charge that she misused $1,500 in district money. If convicted, she would face up to three years in prison and would be barred from holding public office.
Coleman, a three-term board member, is accused of taking the money to attend an education conference in New Orleans in November, 1983. Conference officials have said they have no evidence that she registered for or attended the conference.
Ed Fern, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney, said his office has received "several hundred letters" in the last few weeks demanding that Coleman not be allowed to plead to a misdemeanor, or that she be forced to resign as a condition of any misdemeanor plea.
The removal of either Coleman or Dorn would result in a special election.
Benjamin and her supporters traced her victory over Brown largely to the new majority's April ouster of Fortune, who last week filed a $3.5-million breach-of-contract claim against the district. Fortune also filed a stress-disability claim in an unspecified amount for "emotional and mental distress, mental anguish and humiliation."
"I think the firing of the superintendent without due process really sent a shock wave through this community," Benjamin said Tuesday night. "The voters have sent a message to the politicians in this city and it's this: Keep your dirty politics off the school board."
Support for Recall
Leaders in the recall movement said Tuesday they were "ecstatic" about the election results and claimed to have broad support for the recall.
The Rev. Matthew Jefferson, a leader of the recall group, said that while campaigning for Benjamin, he found that "a lot of people wanted to sign petitions to recall the board right then and there. We had to tell them that that would come a little later, but there's a lot of excitement out there about this. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but we're recruiting right and left, and I think we're going to make it.
"Before, lots of people were afraid for their jobs, et cetera. With this success, I think they're beginning to realize there's strength and safety in numbers. People are coming out to join us that we never thought would."
Board member William (Tony) Draper, who also is active in the recall movement and is allied with Benjamin, said that, ironically, "the board's firing of the superintendent when they did gave us a momentum we never could have had.
"If they had just waited until after the June election to fire him, things might have turned out completely different. We never would have had this much interest in a school board runoff. I saw people voting that told me they hadn't voted in years."