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Runoffs likely in 2 school races

Two of the candidates favored by L.A. mayor would compete with teacher-backed foes in May. A third is winning, but the fourth is losing.

March 07, 2007|Howard Blume and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school-intervention plans hung in the balance Tuesday evening as election officials tallied results in four Los Angeles Board of Education races that could give him an outright majority of political allies.

In incomplete returns, the mayor's favored candidates were ahead in three races and trailing in the fourth. But two of those leads were not sizable enough to avoid a May runoff.

Villaraigosa has one close ally on the seven-member board; he needs three wins in the four races to secure a majority that backs his plan to run as many as three low-performing high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them. A law that gave him substantial authority over local schools is tied up in litigation.

Also on the ballot was Charter Amendment L, which would limit school board members to three terms totaling 12 years and place a $1,000 cap on individual campaign contributions. It appeared headed to easy passage.

Villaraigosa had planned to oust at the ballot box any board members who resisted his schools agenda, but amid Tuesday night's uncertain outcome, he adopted a conciliatory tone. Earlier, he had called board President Marlene Canter, with whom he had refused to meet for months.

"I want to work with the school board," he said in an interview. "I'm reaching out.... I'm looking for a partnership that's focused on change and innovation. That's what it's been about from the beginning."

He added: "I'm not looking for the board to agree with me on every issue, but to have a sense of urgency."

The two big-money contests pitted an incumbent against a challenger favored by the mayor. In those races, Villaraigosa faced one loss and a probable runoff. The union-backed Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte was leading in her South Los Angeles race and Villaraigosa-favored Tamar Galatzan and incumbent Jon M. Lauritzen were headed to a May showdown in the San Fernando Valley.

The mayor officially sat out the battle in District 1, which pitted incumbent LaMotte against charter school operator Johnathan Williams.

In early returns, LaMotte took a double-digit percentage lead.

"In my gut I feel very confident," she said at a Leimert Park banquet hall packed with more than 200 supporters. "It says that this community decides who represents it, not big money outsiders who have no vested interest."

LaMotte too got a call from Villaraigosa, which she did not immediately return. The two have a sizable rift to mend: LaMotte has virtually likened the mayor's intervention plans to the Tuskegee experiments in which black men with syphilis were observed, not treated.

Villaraigosa shied away from openly supporting Williams for fear of roiling his already delicate relationship with the city's black leaders -- most of whom support LaMotte. Nonetheless, Villaraigosa dispatched his campaign manager to run Williams' race.

Williams, 40, raised nearly $1 million, far outpacing LaMotte, who relied almost entirely on the $450,000 the union gave her. Much of Williams' money came from deep-pocketed supporters of charter schools and such allies of Villaraigosa as former Mayor Richard Riordan. And Williams has looked beyond the traditional black establishment.

One recent weekend, he went door to door in mostly white Hancock Park and in Larchmont Village -- where many parents don't send their children to L.A. Unified schools.

In contrast, LaMotte, 73, has effectively played off residual anger some African American leaders feel toward Villaraigosa for not fully including them in his reform plans.

LaMotte and her supporters have tried to portray Williams as an outsider to "the community."

At a late February news conference in which several black elected officials joined LaMotte in a show of support, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) said: "When we look at a school district that is under grave threat ... of being taken over, LaMotte stands strong."

On Tuesday, James Ethel Veal-Gower, 79, said she voted for LaMotte because of campaign mailings that touted the union's backing.

"As far as knowing what she's been doing [in office], I'm not sure," the former teacher's aide said. "I just have to trust what I read."

The direct confrontation between the mayor and the teachers union played out in District 3, which covers the south and west San Fernando Valley. One-term incumbent Lauritzen was well outspent by challenger Galatzan, who benefited from more than $1.15 million from the mayor's Partnership for Better Schools. This race appeared headed for a runoff because of a spirited $7,000 campaign by teacher Louis Pugliese.

Lauritzen's funding comes almost entirely from UTLA, which reported $475,000 in contributions. His campaign compensated by going negative early, citing Galatzan's lack of experience in education.

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