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Coffers, Tempers High in Runoff

May 17, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Board of Education runoff race for the 5th District has turned expensive and nasty with two-term incumbent David Tokofsky and challenger Nellie Rios-Parra raising a total of more than $1 million for phone banks, attack mailers and other campaign expenses.

The seat -- which represents mostly Latino communities such as South Gate and East Los Angeles, and such liberal bastions as Silver Lake and Los Feliz -- is key to the political direction of the seven-member board.

The teachers union hopes that a Tokofsky victory in Tuesday's election will help labor gain a friendly majority at a time when contracts are up for renewal and other school districts are laying teachers off because of the state budget deficit. A competing political action group, led by financier Eli Broad and former Mayor Richard Riordan, supports Rios-Parra and wants to reestablish its clout after two of its preferred candidates, both incumbents, were defeated in the March primary by union-backed challengers.

The runoff also will be a test of Tokofsky's crossover ethnic appeal. The Los Angeles City Council last year redrew the boundaries of what already was a Latino-majority district, adding new areas such as Bell and Cudahy that put the district's Latinos at 57% of registered voters. Tokofsky, a Jewish white man who speaks Spanish fluently, garnered many more votes than any of his three Latino challengers in the primary but fell short of a majority.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
School board campaign -- In a May 17 article in the California section, a researcher who helped the campaign of Los Angeles school board candidate Nellie Rios-Parra was reported to have acknowledged that he counted only initial votes on various issues by Los Angeles school board members, not the final votes, before preparing campaign literature against incumbent David Tokofsky. In fact, the researcher, Robijn van Giesen, who was on contract for the Coalition for Kids organization, reviewed all the votes. However, not all of Tokofsky's final votes were reflected in the Rios-Parra campaign literature.

The campaign has recently taken on a harder edge. Rios-Parra, 36, a director of pre-kindergarten programs at the tiny Lennox School District, says she offers an outsider's perspective and says Tokofsky is out of touch with his constituents and is controlled by teachers unions. Tokofsky, 43, counters that his knowledge of the district makes him the best person for the job and calls Rios-Parra an inexperienced pawn of Broad's and Riordan's Coalition for Kids -- her largest contributor.

Tokofsky has also accused Rios-Parra of lying about his record. Earlier this week, the Campaign Watch Commission -- an independent council set up to monitor ethical issues in local elections -- agreed that Rios-Parra's mailers were misleading in their characterization of Tokofsky's positions, especially about the district's purchase of a downtown high-rise for its new headquarters and how many board votes he missed.

Tokofsky, a former teacher who led Marshall High School's academic decathlon team to a national championship in 1987, has a reputation as a watchdog of district spending and policies but also has been criticized for being unfocused and divisive.

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String of Endorsements

The two other candidates in the primary, state legislative aide Jose Sigala and doctoral student Maria Lou Calanche, have since endorsed Tokofsky. So have a long list of powerful Latino leaders including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Lucille Roybal (D-Los Angeles).

The most prominent endorsements Rios-Parra has received so far are from City Councilwoman Jan Perry and defeated L.A. school board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes.

Tokofsky has outdistanced Rios-Parra in fund-raising. His campaign has raised $784,000 in cash and nonmonetary contributions, nearly twice as much money and nonmonetary contributions as Rios-Parra's campaign, according to public records and interviews with campaign staffers. Nearly $500,000 of that money is from labor organizations, including $315,000 from United Teachers-Los Angeles, the teachers union.

If Tokofsky wins and if current board member Julie Korenstein loses her bid for L.A. City Council and remains a school trustee, union-backed trustees will constitute a majority on the school board for the first time in four years.

Rios-Parra has raised $359,000; of that, $282,000 has come from Coalition for Kids contributions of cash and payment for services and attack mailers.

Some of those mailers contend that Tokofsky has missed 696 votes during his tenure on the board and "allowed the district to build him a $100,000 private bathroom in its new $180-million headquarters."

In fact, Tokofsky cast the sole vote against the district's new headquarters building. Tokofsky left the board room during initial roll calls on many issues -- but records show that he nearly always returned to cast his vote by the end of board meetings. Robijn Vangiesen, a researcher on contract with the coalition who reviewed the board meeting minutes, acknowledged that he counted only the initial vote tallies -- not the final votes.

In an interview at her Monterey Hills home earlier this week, Rios-Parra said Tokofsky delayed his votes to avoid public scrutiny. In addition, she said she had believed that Tokofsky had voted for the Beaudry building. But after she was corrected, Rios-Parra criticized Tokofsky for not persuading enough of his board colleagues to block the building purchase.

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