For years, Warren Fletcher was regarded by his peers as one of the brightest people in the room, but not someone who someday would head one of the nation's powerful teacher unions, United Teachers Los Angeles.
That assessment had to be revised as of Tuesday night.
Fletcher emerged with nearly 53% of the vote in a runoff against heavily favored union Vice President Julie Washington, a charismatic figure who has long played a central role on the committee that oversees employee health benefits and in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Washington had the implicit support of top union leaders, but also became linked with hard times, including layoffs and salary cuts, as well as union political setbacks under outgoing President A.J. Duffy.
"Julie was tied closely to Duffy," said Fletcher supporter Dave Peters, who represents substitute teachers in the union.
Interviews with Fletcher as well as union leaders and other teachers suggest that Fletcher pulled together a coalition of the unhappy, including displaced school nurses, substitute teachers and reading and math coaches. He collected votes from union members who want more collaboration with the school system and from those who want to go on strike against it.
"I don't think it's productive to have UTLA boiled down to a silly level of dichotomies," Fletcher, 51, said in an interview. "I can give you dozens of other pairings of folks who want things in conflict with each other," he said. "That is the nature of any large multi-constituency organization."
Fletcher, who ran for president twice before, has repeatedly emphasized his focus on bread-and-butter issues, because, he said, that is his core job. He added that he also serves as a steward for students.
"If when I say I'm going to focus on pay and benefits, you think that means UTLA would be opposed to education reform? That's a nonsensical statement. The fact that I like pizza doesn't mean I'm opposed to spaghetti," he said.
Fletcher's views suggest no sharp departure from current union thinking. He wants more charter schools unionized, for example, and he favors a better teacher evaluation process, but isn't impressed with models that rely on the standardized test scores of students.
"Many teachers see evaluation as a weapon used against them. Instead, it should be a tool," he said, to help teachers improve their craft.
Fletcher was born in Hollywood and went from grade school through college in the same ZIP Code, graduating from Wilson High and then from Cal State L.A. in 1982. Then he earned his teaching credential at Cal State Long Beach.
He worked as a substitute for 17 years, giving him the flexibility to raise his son as a single father. During tight school budget times in the early 1990s, he moonlighted doing telephone customer service. About that time, he also won $11,000 in 22 minutes on "Jeopardy."
Fletcher has learned to tone down his wit, said Mike Dreebin, who co-chaired the union election process and said he thinks highly of both candidates.
"When Warren ran for president before, he actually turned some people off when they heard him," Dreebin said. "Warren sometimes has a sharp sense of humor that I really appreciate," but it rubs some people the wrong way, Dreebin said.
Fletcher currently works as an English teacher at City of Angels alternative school.
Virtually from the start, Fletcher was active in the union, sometimes becoming a thorn to those in power. He helped lead a successful referendum to overturn the leadership's endorsement of a bill that gave Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa considerable control over L.A. Unified. The courts later overturned the legislation.