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Battle Over L.a. Schools Shifts To May Runoff

The mayor's dream of district influence rests on the runoff between Lauritzen and Galatzan.

He Reaches Out To Foes

March 08, 2007|Joel Rubin and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Having failed to gain a clear verdict from voters, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles teachers union braced Wednesday for a costly and divisive runoff election that will determine whether Villaraigosa gains a friendly majority on the Board of Education -- and a long-sought measure of control over the sprawling, troubled school system.

Tuesday's election, with the percentage of voter turnout in single digits, left Villaraigosa with one win, one loss and two runoffs in the San Fernando Valley and the Harbor area. His endorsed candidates will enter as favorites in elections scheduled for May 15.

United Teachers Los Angeles leaders said they would not challenge Villaraigosa's candidate in the Harbor area, where no one candidate won union support. That leaves the Valley as the decisive battleground.

The runoff there will pit the mayor's favored candidate, Tamar Galatzan, against UTLA-backed incumbent Jon M. Lauritzen. Galatzan claimed 44% of Tuesday's vote; Lauritzen about 40%.

The first round was a bitterly contested, extremely expensive scrap in which fewer than 29,000 voters cast ballots. The mayor's committee threw in more than $1.15 million -- about 80% of Galatzan's total. UTLA countered with $475,000 and a troupe of teacher volunteers for Lauritzen.

Since taking office, Villaraigosa has made improving schools in the nation's second-largest district a centerpiece of his administration. He first sought complete control but then settled, in a legislative compromise, for a power-sharing arrangement. That law is stymied in the courts.

His latest bid was to win influence through electing allies to the school board. He needed three wins in the four races to reliably overturn a current board majority that has opposed his intervention efforts.

Neither heavyweight -- the mayor nor the union -- especially wants the rematch in the Valley.

"We don't have much choice," UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt said Wednesday. "Clearly, we wanted to have this resolved last night, but our membership sees this race as important and we're going to have to continue ahead."

The same logic applied for Villaraigosa. But he also took pains Wednesday morning to strike a conciliatory tone toward board members whom he had collectively lambasted in recent months.

At a Wednesday news conference, he acknowledged, perhaps for the first time, that a state law that gives him substantial authority over the school system may not survive an ongoing legal challenge. The city's children must still be helped, he said, and he intends to do his part.

In practical terms, this meant Monday peace overtures from the mayor in phone calls to Lauritzen and school board President Marlene Canter -- after Villaraigosa had refused for months to meet with her. Villaraigosa also called L.A. Unified Supt. David L. Brewer, as well as board members Julie Korenstein and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte.

What did he tell them?

"I said no matter what happens, I want a partnership," he said. "We have to work together." Of Canter, he said: "I know she cares for kids."

Both were attending the launch of a health-education initiative at Joseph LeConte Middle School in Hollywood. In an earnest moment, Villaraigosa even grasped Canter's hand momentarily behind the podium.

Just before the media event, Canter talked in similar terms: "The mayor called me and said it was time for a clean slate ... and I said I've been waiting for this since the day I was elected as board president."

LaMotte, speaking Tuesday night, was not so forgiving.

She had just won a hard-fought reelection bid over charter school operator Johnathan Williams, whose campaign was well funded by close allies of the mayor.

"All of the things I have gone through, all of the lies, were manifested to get me out," LaMotte said. "It's going to take some time for me to be conciliatory."

The mayor's outreach, she said, "should have come earlier. Not now."

Villaraigosa had made the strategic decision not to endorse LaMotte's opponent in hopes of avoiding a falling out with the black political establishment, which was almost fully behind LaMotte. But he seemed to fool no one.

"I'm actually glad Marguerite had to run against someone, because it has sent a message: Leave us the hell alone!" said City Councilman Herb Wesson at LaMotte's Leimert Park victory party.

Many black leaders viewed Villaraigosa's school-intervention agenda as tantamount to diluting black political power.

State Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), who has been a frequent Villaraigosa ally, echoed Wesson: "A lot was at stake here tonight, and many of us were taking this very seriously. Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte became a symbol for us."

So the mayor tried again Wednesday morning, speaking to LaMotte through reporters: "I want to work with her. She's duly elected." He recalled that LaMotte had once held a fundraiser for him: "She's a friend."

A partnership with the school board, he said, "is inevitable. We've got to figure out what it looks like."

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