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Tokofsky's Exemplary Playbook

The LAUSD veteran could show other politicians how to serve Latino voters.

June 02, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is the associate editor of The Times.

David Tokofsky, who since 1995 has represented northeast Los Angeles on the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, is becoming an unwitting trailblazer for other non-Latino politicians in this increasingly Latino city.

Tokofsky is a refreshing contrast to L.A.'s often slick, media-driven politicians. After seven years in office, he still resembles the rumpled social studies teacher he used to be.

And his unlikeness to other pols is only accentuated by his willingness to be a maverick on some controversial issues the school board has faced during his tenure.

A few years ago, when a cadre of would-be education reformers was elected with the support of then-Mayor Richard Riordan, one of its chief goals was to oust a weak but popular schools superintendent, Ruben Zacarias. It did, but Tokofsky stood by Zacarias to the end.

When it became clear earlier this year that Latino parents and community activists had the support to force the resumption of work on the Belmont Learning Complex near downtown, Tokofsky didn't just bend to the popular will but stuck by his belief that the site was still not safe.

-- Last week, he was the lone school board member who defended standardized tests that California now requires its school districts to administer. Other board members opted to join other urban school districts in pushing to have the tests dropped.

Of course, Tokofsky's independent streak probably also got him into the political conundrum he's facing now.

On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to approve new district boundaries for the seven school board seats. And no matter how the lines are drawn, it looks as if Tokofsky will wind up with more new Latino voters in his district, which already has 51% Latino voter registration.

A handful of different maps for new districts is under discussion, but all would push Tokofsky further into the city's Eastside and adjacent suburbs, like Huntington Park.

Tokofsky is lobbying against the plans, without much success.

"I'm not running from Latino voters," he says. "But I'd prefer Latino voters who know me, in places like Eagle Rock, rather than voters who don't, in places like South Gate."

Unfortunately, the few political activists who care enough to pay close attention to school board reapportionment have other priorities.

Riordan and his rich buddies want to protect school board member Caprice Young, one of the reformers they helped elect.

Young's district adjoins Tokofsky's, as does the San Fernando Valley district of Julie Korenstein. She is the most reliable school board vote for the local teachers union, which is helping Korenstein lobby for a "safe" district.

Latino activists, meanwhile, want at least three school board districts where Latino voters can wield political influence. They believe that, given the city's demographics, one of those districts must be Tokofsky's.

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawyers say their goal is not to get more Latinos onto the school board but to make more elected officials responsive to Latino voters.

The conventional wisdom has it that Tokofsky is politically doomed the first time he faces a viable Latino opponent.

But, as the old song says, it ain't necessarily so.

Tokofsky has twice beaten Latino opponents, and he could do so again.

It is almost forgotten now, but all through the 1970s a non-Latino politician, Arthur K. Snyder, was able to hold a City Council seat representing the Eastside by paying close attention to his largely Latino constituents. He not only won regular city elections but beat back two recall attempts.

In the end, a troubled personal life forced Snyder to leave public office, but Latinos never voted him out.

Tokofsky is a far better role model than Snyder ever was. He speaks better Spanish and is not constantly striving for higher office the way Snyder did.

Tokofsky's example of "not running from Latino voters" might even help buck up the courage of scared pols like Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), whose new congressional district was so blatantly gerrymandered to rid him of Latino voters that it led to a still-unresolved MALDEF lawsuit.

Berman is a far more polished and experienced politician than Tokofsky and could retain his congressional seat with ease if he were willing to put out half the effort Tokofsky does.

Maybe it's beneath a member of Congress to look to a mere school board member as a model. But, as noted earlier, Berman could do worse.

So could the many other local pols--including Tokofsky's fellow school board members Young and Korenstein--who will inevitably face a day when a majority of their constituents are Latino.

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