Less than two weeks before a hotly contested Los Angeles School board race, one of the hardest items to find is a lawn sign for incumbent Alan Gershman.
Lawn signs routinely sprout in neighborhoods during local campaigns. But Gershman has only recently started distributing his.
"We weren't going to do them at all," Gershman said. "They are just silly little things that make folks feel that some action is happening. But we decided to do it after so many people said they wanted them."
Gershman was forced to stake out his turf after the red-and-gold signs of his chief opponent, Mark Slavkin, began popping up in front of homes throughout his Westside district, which stretches from Pacific Palisades to Westchester and from the coast to Crenshaw Boulevard.
The ballot in the April 11 school board race will also include the names of Gary Garcia, 26, a district high school teacher, who withdrew and endorsed Slavkin; and Terry Edward Allen, 32, a computer engineer who supports increased salaries for teachers. Allen said he believes more should be done to explore space, protect the rain forests and solve the problems of water shortages on the planet.
But the real race so far is between Gershman and Slavkin, who is backed by the teachers union.
The dearth of lawn signs symbolizes the low-key approach Gershman, 49, has taken in the district he has represented for eight years.
"He is an extremely bright guy who has served the district well, but he has never demonstrated the burning in the belly that politicians need to hold on to an office and move to bigger and better positions," said Richard Lichtenstein, a longtime political consultant on the Westside. Gershman's campaign, he adds, has been slow to get off the ground.
Gershman admits that his style lacks political flash, but he contends that he is effective in cutting through the district's bureaucratic red tape.
Gershman said his quiet approach has enabled him to attract a number of innovative programs to his district, including Venice High School's language magnet program, the Hamilton High School Music Academy and a pilot project to allow English-speaking elementary school students immersion in Spanish.
Gershman, a former teacher, is supported by school employee unions representing 8,000 blue-color workers, many school administrators, State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig and Westside City Councilmen Zev Yaroslavsky and Marvin Braude.
Slavkin, a 27-year-old aide to Supervisor Ed Edelman, has described the district as being "too fat and cumbersome" to answer the special needs of Westside schools. "I'll change all that; I'm going to shake up the bureaucrats and the fat cats," he said.
Backed by the 22,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles, Slavkin has been openly supportive of the teachers in their recent demands for increased salaries and would give teachers a greater share of the power in running the schools. Slavkin's election would give the union the fourth vote it needs to sway the seven-member board in the current labor dispute.
The district, Slavkin complains, has focused too much on priority housing--finding spaces for children who attend overcrowded schools--and not enough on security precautions and educational quality.
"They are driving the middle class out," he said. "This will have disastrous consequences, a two-tier system with the white and affluent students going to private schools, and the poor and minority students going to public schools."
Gershman accuses his opponent of creating a climate of fear. However, Slavkin seems to have found a receptive audience among many Westside parents, who have complained that their children have suffered because of the district's policy of busing in students to fill empty classroom seats.
Slavkin is supported not only by the teachers but by a number of Democratic leaders and clubs. He has been endorsed by Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles)--for whom his mother is a longtime field representative--and by former U.S. Sen. John Tunney.
His critics have frequently described Slavkin as having little interest in educational issues but as simply seeking the board seat as a political steppingstone.
"He has yet to carve out his own identity," one Westside political consultant said. "He is generally perceived as a creature of the unions and his family. He is one of those guys who is running for office because there is an office to run for."
Slavkin says such criticism is unfair. "It's time we stopped being suspicious of bright young people who want to get involved," he said. "I grew up in this area. I went to Westside public schools. And I'm not going to sit back and watch the system destroyed."
He has sought to defuse the issue of his union support by accusing Gershman of being a candidate of high-salaried administrators. And he challenged Gershman to reveal the identities of scores of small contributors to his campaign, who are not required by law to give their names.
Gershman has refused to reveal the names, saying he fears that his supporters might be harassed by the union.
Linda Rosen, an active Cheviot Hills parent, said she is not concerned about Slavkin's political ambitions as long as he represents the district.
"There is a lot of frustration about the bureaucracy," she said. "We want someone who will be concerned about our needs, cut the red tape and give the teachers more say-so."
But Marcy Frerich, a parent who has been active at Canfield-Crescent Heights Elementary School, warned that Slavkin would also be tied to a bureaucracy. "The union is also a bureaucracy," she said.