In his narrow but stunning upset victory for a seat on the Los Angeles school board, Warren Furutani apparently rode a wave of discontent with public education and fears that the giant district is bringing its chronic overcrowding, academic and financial problems to its suburban schools in the South Bay.
Furutani, 39, a UCLA administrator who will be the first Asian elected to the Los Angeles board, also benefited from the backing of the teachers union and strong support from ethnic groups in the racially and culturally diverse 7th District, which stretches from the Harbor area to Watts and includes the cities of Carson, Lomita, Gardena and Southgate.
Furutani received 11,257 votes (51.01%) of the ballots cast Tuesday, compared to 10,810 (48.99%) for Greenwood, according to final but unofficial returns.
Greenwood, 42, a San Pedro hospital administrator and eight-year incumbent, took a small lead in absentee ballots, which were counted first, but Furutani then forged ahead, maintaining a narrow margin throughout the rest of the long vote count.
Shouts and Applause
For Furutani and hundreds of supporters gathered at his storefront campaign headquarters in Gardena, the cliffhanger ended shortly before midnight Tuesday when the final tally showed him winning by 447 votes.
The room exploded with shouts and applause as the portly candidate raised his arms over his head and plunged into the crowd, stopping frequently to hug campaign workers and leaders.
Furutani termed the election outcome a "grass-roots victory," which he said showed that people of diverse backgrounds and interests can be brought together to advance public education.
He said his campaign of "new ideas, fresh perspectives" had appealed to a broad range of voters who believe that the huge urban school system can be better managed. In often-acrimonious debates with Greenwood, Furutani had sought to ease residents' fears that Los Angeles' efforts to relieve overcrowding by busing in inner-city youngsters would disrupt schools in San Pedro and other suburban areas and lower academic standards.
At the same time, Furutani, a youth counselor for 20 years, pledged to be a more effective advocate of programs for minorities. The key, according to a constant theme of his campaign, was to relieve tensions among groups with conflicting interests and explore "new approaches" to problems.
Discontent with the Los Angeles district has been dramatized by Lomita's frustrated attempt to withdraw and form its own school system and an aborted attempt by some Gardena residents to join Lomita's effort. Catherine Burger, a Gardena parent who attended Furutani's election celebration, said she hopes that the new board member will give local communities better representation.
"Many communities have been polarized," she said.
Greenwood's bid for reelection, Furutani told supporters Tuesday night, also foundered over the incumbent's "efforts to discredit the new kid on the block." During the campaign, Greenwood hammered at Furutani's past involvement with militant campus and community causes and questioned his claim to be an "administrator/educator" in UCLA's Asian-American studies program.
Furutani said UCLA backed his job description and a majority of voters, particularly in the Asian community, believed that he had long ago matured into an activist capable of "working within the system."
Greenwood discounted the effect of campaign rhetoric, saying the major factors in his defeat were the heavy financial and volunteer-worker support that United Teachers-Los Angeles, the teachers union, gave to Furutani, and a heavy turnout by Asian voters.
Greenwood lost the support of many teachers when he joined other school board members in rejecting demands for a 14% salary increase. Furutani has not committed himself to supporting a 14% raise but said he favors a "double-digit" increase.
As the campaign progressed, Furutani signs sprouted up throughout the 7th District and thousands of mailers helped introduce the new candidate and raise questions about the incumbent. Furutani reported about $70,000 in contributions through March--including $11,000 from the teachers union--while Greenwood had raised about $90,000.
But the incumbent's financial edge was apparently outweighed by Furutani's army of volunteers, who canvassed precincts throughout the district.
"It sure snuck up on us," Greenwood said Wednesday morning. "It seems we just didn't get out enough votes among the people who wanted to support me."
Greenwood, who planned to rest for a few days before thinking about his own political future, said he has pledged to "do whatever I can" to help the new board member "meet the overwhelming problems facing education."
"I truly hope that Warren will be a great board member," Greenwood said. "I wish him well."
Furutani has said that he will quit his UCLA job and work full time as the 7th District's representative. He will take over the post, which pays $24,000 a year, on July 1.
At his campaign headquarters Tuesday night, Furutani spent much of his time at the microphone thanking a long list of supporters, starting with his wife, Lisa.
Among them were Gardena Councilman Mas Fukai, who recalled that he and other community leaders approached Furutani a year ago to ask him if he was "willing to pay the price" to run for the school board.
Ryo Komae, a longtime Gardena druggist and a Republic Bank chairman until his retirement, said Furutani "just came out of nowhere and made it with a lot of grass-roots support."