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L.A. teachers union endorses second incumbent

The vote in favor of one-term trustee LaMotte sets up a battle with Villaraigosa.

January 19, 2007|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles teachers union Thursday night endorsed one-term Board of Education incumbent Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, setting up a pivotal confrontation with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as he tries to win substantial influence over the school district at the ballot box.

Last month, the union endorsed another incumbent, Jon M. Lauritzen, for the Los Angeles Unified School District's west San Fernando Valley board seat. If the union prevails in both races March 6, the board majority will still consist of trustees who opposed Villaraigosa's school-intervention efforts. Villaraigosa and his allies are expected to spend millions of dollars to prevent that from happening.

The union's House of Representatives met in emergency session to debate and finally to cast ballots. Winning an endorsement required a 60% plurality.

LaMotte, whose District 1 covers much of South Los Angeles, cleared the hurdle easily despite sharp disagreement over her record. The endorsement comes with the potential for hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign money and regiments of teacher foot soldiers. Without union backing, some observers questioned whether LaMotte would have a viable campaign, especially given the mayor's displeasure with her.

"At times it's been a tug-of-war, but overall our members see her as an ally who could support our interests," union Vice President Joshua Pechthalt said.

In the 5th District, teacher and neighborhood activist Bennett Kayser, 60, fell short of winning the endorsement, receiving 57% of 144 votes cast.

If he had won, the union would be in another high-stakes, high-cost battle with Villaraigosa. The mayor has endorsed Yolie Flores Aguilar, 44, the executive director of the Los Angeles County Children's Planning Council. Both candidates waited outside as delegates debated. Finally, Kayser, a delegate, came in to cast his own ballot, but it wasn't enough.

District 5 includes Silver Lake and Eagle Rock but stretches across the Eastside and Latino-majority cities, including South Gate, Maywood and Cudahy.

LaMotte, 73, has been a sharp critic of the mayor -- once likening his school district takeover ambitions to the Tuskegee experiments, in which white researchers studied the effects of venereal disease on black men rather than curing them. She was part of the school board majority that filed suit against the law giving Villaraigosa substantial authority in the school system. That ongoing suit has delayed and may ultimately overturn the law.

Leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles helped craft that legislation with the mayor, but the rank and file opposed the bill in a referendum after it had become law. And the leadership itself has other pressing priorities, including winning a favorable contract settlement. In that climate, it was hard to part company with an incumbent who had often sided with the union.

The union leadership fought off a move to endorse LaMotte in December, to bring more pressure to bear on her during contract negotiations. But this week, they also decided that LaMotte should wait no longer.

In a letter to teachers, she promised to include them in decision-making at their schools, and added, "in meetings with your union leadership I have also reiterated my support for your contract demands."

Some delegates were decidedly unenthusiastic, recalling LaMotte's reluctance to challenge the transfer of a popular teacher from Crenshaw High. The transfer was later rescinded by then-Supt. Roy Romer.

LaMotte's opponent is charter school founder Johnathan Williams, 39, who also serves on the state Board of Education.

So far, Villaraigosa has not endorsed anyone in the race. If he opposes LaMotte, he will be bucking most of the black political establishment. Political insiders say he has a clear preference for Williams and may rely on well-funded proxies and Williams' own Rolodex of admirers.

Years ago, Williams headed a UTLA chapter, and he insists he's a friend to teachers. But the union's Pechthalt portrayed Williams' defining characteristic as operating the nonunion Accelerated Charter School in South Los Angeles. The rapidly growing charter school movement, Pechthalt said, threatens to "siphon off resources" from other public schools and establish a nonunion beachhead in the district.

In District 3, the battles lines are clear because the mayor has endorsed openly against Lauritzen, the union's choice. Villaraigosa is supporting prosecutor Tamar Galtazan. The other candidate in the Valley race is teacher Louis Pugliese.

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