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LOS ANGELES COUNTY ELECTIONS

2 on School Board Lead Challengers Backed by Riordan

Rivals: Fields faces a runoff and Korenstein runs strong. Huizar is mayor's only pick in front.

April 11, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Two incumbents on the Los Angeles Board of Education were leading challengers backed by Mayor Richard Riordan on Tuesday, early election returns showed.

Valerie Fields, who represents a district that stretches from the Westside to the west San Fernando Valley, led three other candidates in a race that was headed for a June 5 runoff.

"I'm feeling very good," Fields said during a campaign party at the Sportsmen's Lodge hotel in Studio City. "I think that people know I'm the original reformer at the school board."

Challenger Marlene Canter was close behind, and real estate developer Matthew Rodman, backed by Riordan, was trailing.

In a two-way race covering most of the rest of the Valley, incumbent Julie Korenstein was leading small-business owner Tom Riley, another Riordan pick.

A third Riordan-backed candidate, attorney Jose Huizar, was far ahead in a race for an open seat in a district that covers downtown and the Eastside. Huizar faced nominal competition from candidate Ralph Cole, who had raised virtually no money.

The race in Fields' district was the most remarkable because three well-financed candidates all spent lavishly for the position. By the time Tuesday's primary arrived, they had raised a total of $2.3 million, a record that dwarfed previous fund-raising in any single school board race.

While Rodman had the backing of Riordan, Fields received significant assistance from the teachers union. She also won an important endorsement from Gov. Gray Davis, who appeared in a mailer urging voters to support her.

Canter financed her own campaign largely with earnings from a teacher training company she ran for 25 years.

Fields characterized herself as a reformer who had rooted out waste and brought back arts and phonics instruction during her first term on the school board. She also made Riordan himself an issue in the campaign after the two clashed in January.

The mayor initially endorsed Fields but withdrew his support after she refused to oppose an 11.5% pay increase for teachers. Fields then depicted herself as a public servant who had the courage to break with the mayor at considerable political cost.

While Riordan expressed confidence in Rodman from the beginning, some of the mayor's chief financial backers questioned whether Rodman was the right choice because of his lack of education expertise. Some of Riordan's key advisors said the mayor should have tapped the more experienced Canter, who was a special education teacher before launching her teacher training business.

For her part, Canter portrayed herself as an independent candidate not beholden to any special interest.

The race in the initial months was mostly polite. An early round of debates and mailers focused on the many issues facing the school district, from uncredentialed teachers to overcrowding to low test scores.

The civility broke down gradually as Canter and Rodman sought to depict Fields as a member of a dysfunctional school board that had failed to provide textbooks and other essentials to the district's 723,000 students.

Then, last week, the race turned ugly. Fields, Canter and Rodman ripped into one another with sharply worded mailers and recorded phone calls to voters.

Canter struck first with a mailer that accused Fields of missing or being tardy to more than one-third of the school board meetings last year.

"If students missed class as much as incumbent Valerie Fields missed votes, they would get an F," the mailer said. "With all of the problems facing our public schools today, don't we deserve to have a full-time school board member?"

Fields acknowledged that she had missed or been slightly tardy to about 30% of the meetings, but called the mailer a smear. She recalled being less than five minutes late on the occasions she was tardy.

Fields and Rodman, meanwhile, seized on Canter's poor voting record as a private citizen.

Fields noted in a press release that Canter had failed to vote in 12 of 15 elections since 1993, including the 1997 and 1999 school board races. Rodman went further, putting out a mailer the weekend before the election that listed the elections in which Canter had not voted in and assailing her "appalling record of civic irresponsibility."

Canter acknowledged her failure to vote, saying she was focused on her business.

By the time the primary arrived, Canter had loaned her campaign $950,000. Fields had raised nearly $688,000, with the union as her largest contributor. Rodman raised just under $700,000, nearly all from Riordan's campaign committee, Coalition for the Kids.

The record fund-raising was expected to continue in the two months leading up to the June 5 runoff.

Both Canter and Fields said they would stop the attacks and return to discussing district issues. "I'm going to focus on what the kids need in the classroom," Canter said.

The District 6 campaign in the San Fernando Valley between incumbent Korenstein and Riley saw only minor scuffling.

Korenstein, who was backed by the United Teachers-Los Angeles union, tried to tie Riley, by association, with gambling because he manufactures bingo equipment. He said the equipment is used for charitable gaming.

Riley linked Korenstein to what he called 14 years of stagnation on the school board. Korenstein, the longest-serving member of the school board, is seeking her fourth full term.

The third race, in District 2, was the quietest. Huizar appeared headed for an easy victory.

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