Luis Sanchez, a candidate for the Los Angeles Board of Education, worked the room at a posh Beverly Hills condo on a Thursday in late January. The nearly 50 guests drank Au Bon Climat chardonnay and Piper Sonoma sparkling wine as Sanchez's backers, including school board President Monica Garcia and charter school leaders, lauded him as a man who could help push the district toward serious reforms.
About the same time, his main competitor in the race, John Fernandez, was being pressured by United Teachers Los Angeles officials to pull out of the race after they discovered discrepancies in his background, including a bankruptcy. Fernandez ultimately declined to drop out; the union turned its support to rival Bennett Kayser.
The District 5 race is the only open school board seat on the March 8 ballot. Incumbents are running for reelection in the three other district races this year. This race is being closely watched because it holds the possibility of a victory by a candidate with heavy backing from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who supports Sanchez; a candidate endorsed by the union, Kayser; or one without the support of either, Fernandez.
The board member now in the job, Yolie Flores, has been seen as a union opponent but hasn't always gotten along with Villaraigosa or with Garcia, the mayor's main ally on the board. Flores was often the most outspoken supporter of policies that were staunchly opposed by union leadership, including turning over campuses to outside, mainly nonunion charter groups and pushing for including students' test scores in teachers' evaluations.
"She was independent and … that will be tough to replace," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
Although many say Sanchez has the edge, they question whether he would be able to stand up to the same supporters who honored him in Beverly Hills.
Sanchez's opponents also questioned his independence. "Is a vote for him just giving Monica Garcia another seat at the board?" Kayser asked.
Sanchez, who founded Innercity Struggle, an educational advocacy group based in East Los Angeles, said the question is a fair one but noted that he has differed with his boss.
"Monica and I will agree on 90% to 95% of things," Sanchez said. "But there are times when we haven't."
Sanchez cited several issues where he pushed his boss, including advocating for the board to build a new high school for the Eastside when he was at Innercity Struggle.
Still, Sanchez said that he will be able to show his independence only if he gets to cast crucial votes. "I can say whatever I want, but the proof will come when I have to cast the hard votes," he said. "I know I can do that."
Even though Sanchez enjoys a hefty fundraising lead — he has received nearly $450,000 in support, far more than Fernandez or Kayser — he has still run an aggressive campaign. He recently sent out a mailer with a photo of Kayser, under the label "Part of the Problem."
Kayser, meanwhile, said his long experience as a classroom teacher gives him the edge; Sanchez has never been an instructor. "I've spent a lot more time on the ground," he said.
In addition to his teachers union endorsement, Kayser also has the support of the administrators union.
He also said he would be more willing to take on charter school interests and the mayor.
Although he has Parkinson's disease, Kayser said, it is in its early stages and should not affect his ability to serve. During a recent lunch with a reporter, Kayser's hands shook but he showed no other symptoms of the disease. "I'll be fine," he said.
He has also begun to push back on Sanchez's campaign and recently sent a complaint to the city's Ethics Commission, charging that a mailer from Sanchez's campaign closely mirrored one sent by an independent committee that has been supported by the mayor, showing illegal "collaboration, communication and coordination" between the two groups.
And, even though he received the teachers union endorsement relatively late, some say it would be a mistake to count him out.
"The endorsement of classroom teachers is still the most powerful tool a candidate can have if the campaign is run properly," said Larry Levine, a political consultant who has worked with the teachers union in the past but is not involved in this election.
Fernandez, a former school union representative who taught at Roosevelt High School for more than 20 years before retiring, harshly criticized the way Villaraigosa's nonprofit managed the school, saying that his administrators did not fulfill promises to collaborate with teachers at the campus.
The district stretches from the unincorporated parts of Maywood to areas of Los Feliz.