Pacing by the phone in his election headquarters Tuesday night, Los Angeles school board member Alan Gershman described the political tug of war he was engaged in as a game of inches.
Even though the eight-year incumbent was well ahead of his chief rival, Mark Slavkin, he was unable to claim victory because his vote total hovered just shy of the 50% he needed to avoid a runoff election.
And when the results were in, that's how it remained: Gershman finished first but will have to face Slavkin, 28, in a June runoff.
Gershman received 32,606 votes, or 48% of the total. Slavkin came in second with 24,442 votes, or 36%. Gary Garcia, a candidate who had dropped out of the race, got 7,453 votes, or 11%, and Terry Edward Allen got 3,272, or 5%.
"It's now a two-round election," the 49-year-old incumbent said.
During the last days of the campaign, both sides seemed to focus their energies on getting votes in Cheviot Hills, Pico Robertson, Westwood and other parts of Zev Yaroslavky's 5th City Council District. The idea was that people who were already going to the polls to vote in the council race would be more likely to cast ballots in the school board election.
The runoff, however, is expected to draw greater attention among Westside voters because the school board race will no longer be in the shadows of Councilman Yaroslavky's and Mayor Tom Bradley's reelection bids.
Both the Gershman and Slavkin camps said they plan to spend the next few days analyzing the results to determine their strategies for the runoff. However, the message in the campaign is expected to remain the same.
"We will regroup and ask voters to take another look at this race," Gershman said. "When they do, I don't believe they will support the kind of campaign my opponent has been running. It's been a campaign of character assassination. He won't discuss educational issues."
Slavkin, an aide to county Supervisor Ed Edelman, said forcing Gershman into a runoff was a "realistic goal" he had set in his initial campaign.
"It is hard to defeat an eight-year incumbent, but I think we have struck a chord in his district," he said. "I think we plan to continue to hit hard on the issues that have been successful: the issues of safety and crime, and the top-heavy bureaucracy in the district."
Slavkin's campaign has the backing of the 22,000-member United Teachers-Los Angeles, which has donated money and workers to his campaign in hopes of gaining a four-vote majority on the seven-member board.
"I'm proud of the support I have received from the teachers. It has been a tremendous plus in forcing this runoff," Slavkin said. "Now (Gershman) is going to have to get out and defend his record and tell the voters why he deserves another chance."
Gershman has been targeted by the teachers' union because he has refused to support a number of its demands, including a higher pay increase than the district's current offer of 20% over the next three years. Gershman says a bigger increase would lead to massive cuts in educational programs.
Gershman has accused his opponent of being in the pockets of the union. Slavkin has responded by saying that Gershman is in league with high-salaried bureaucrats in the district.
More Aggressive Stand
The runoff campaign is expected to force Gershman, who describes himself as a low-key politician, to take a more aggressive stand if he intends to hold his seat.
Critics accused the incumbent of refusing to take Slavkin's challenge seriously until the weekend before the election, when Gershman's camp began a flurry of activity with lawn signs, mailings and precinct walkers.
But Jerry Seeborg, Gershman's political consultant, said: "Their campaign strategy was to mail early and often, and ours was to mail late. We believe the voters were not interested in the campaign until late. We think the strategy was a good one, and we believe that Alan is real good shape to win the runoff in June."