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Riordan Puppetry in Action

November 24, 2002|Frank del Olmo

If someone like David Tokofsky were not on the Los Angeles school board, we'd have to invent him. How else would we know what the political puppeteers who want to control the city's public schools are up to?

Last week, he exposed another example of their shenanigans, but more on that later.

The puppeteers I refer to include busybodies like former Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad, who want to use the 750,000 kids in our public schools -- 71% of them Latino -- as guinea pigs in paternalistic school-reform experiments. That's why they've spent so much money the last few years backing malleable, handpicked candidates for seats on the Board of Education.

So far Riordan and his moneyed mafia have put three people on the board. Now their political hit men have their sights set on Tokofsky -- whom they once supported, albeit tepidly.

Tokofsky is a former teacher whose 5th District runs from Eagle Rock through East L.A. to several small cities southeast of Los Angeles. He is up for reelection in March, and political analysts consider him vulnerable because his recently redrawn district is now 56% Latino.

Unfortunately for Riordan, most of the city's Latino political elite neither likes nor trusts the former mayor. Too many remember how crudely his school board puppets fired Ruben Zacarias, a popular Latino superintendent, within days of their election in 1999. That's the main reason Riordan's political gofers have never been able to find a viable Latino candidate to run against Tokofsky, who speaks Spanish and worked hard to serve Latino constituents even before they became a majority in his district.

But that hasn't kept Riordan and his ilk from schemes that are stunning in their mix of arrogance and stupidity. Riordan and Broad offered to donate millions of dollars to Occidental College in an effort to persuade its president, Ted Mitchell, to run for Tokofsky's seat. The deal came to light when Mitchell told Occidental trustees about it and was warned against it.

Of course, Riordan's defenders always rush to point out the good things he and other rich donors have done for public school kids. Buying computer equipment and library books for schools is admirable, but Riordan can't seem to limit his largess to needy kids.

That brings me to the latest Riordan-connected scheme, which Tokofsky helped bring to light. It seems a college classmate of Riordan's, developer William Carey, got a $107-million L.A. school construction project without any competitive bidding. School officials, including Supt. Roy Romer, are trying to explain the sweetheart deal by saying it will allow a badly needed school to be built near downtown Los Angeles sooner than it might otherwise be completed.

Perhaps. But someone needs to ask questions when public funds are spent on multimillion-dollar projects without any bidding -- especially now that state and local voters have approved billions in school construction bonds. The only school board member who was skeptical of Carey's deal when it came before the board was Tokofsky, and he ultimately cast the lone vote against it.

When the deal became public last week, Tokofsky was a key source of information for journalists who covered the story. No wonder Riordan and his buddies want this guy out of the way.

Now that Riordan and Broad have failed in their effort to push the head of Occidental College to run against Tokofsky, they are waving wads of money at three Latino candidates for the 5th District seat. Political aide Jose Sigala, schoolteacher Nellie Rios-Parra and educator Maria Lou Calanche have not yet agreed to accept Riordan and Broad's endorsement or their filthy lucre. Before any of them even think about it, they should ponder an old Mexican saying: "Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres." ("Tell me whom you associate with, and I'll tell you who you are.")

And while they're at it, the three Latino candidates should remember the Spanish word titere -- puppet -- because it is also likely to come up in any Riordan-backed campaign against Tokofsky.


Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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