A political campaign focused on a troubled community college construction program has suddenly veered into a noisy side battle with cries of censorship, stealth candidates and "tea party" takeover.
Scott Svonkin, a senior advisor to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, and Lydia Gutierrez, a Long Beach schoolteacher, face off Tuesday for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College District board. The two candidates, neither of whom won a majority in the March primary, agree on reexamining the campus building effort. But the similarities end there.
Svonkin ran in the March primary on a Democratic slate with incumbents Mona Field and Miguel Santiago, who oversaw the $5.7-billion building program on the district's nine campuses. The slate received substantial campaign funding from college unions and contractors. Gutierrez, a Republican, ran on her own.
A Times series in February reported that tens of millions of construction dollars had been wasted because of poor planning and botched or abandoned projects. The program is funded by voter-approved bonds that taxpayers will be repaying for decades.
Svonkin later returned more than $10,000 in contractor donations but kept several thousand dollars. He said Thursday that was an oversight and that the money will be returned.
Svonkin, 45, said bond construction reform is his "No. 1" priority. "Everybody who hasn't been fired for failing to protect the public interest should be," he said.
But Gutierrez, 53, said Svonkin is an insider who will go along with the district's attempts to whitewash the construction program.
"We need to really clean this up before we move forward," she said.
Since April 3, Svonkin's campaign committees have reported raising just over $299,000, including $220,000 from one donor: the Los Angeles College Guild State PAC, a branch of the community college faculty union, according to late contribution reports provided by the county election's office. Gutierrez's campaign reported receiving $3,788 in the same period.
Although the college board seat is nonpartisan, the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee has stepped into the fray on Svonkin's behalf. The committee sent out a mailer, with the silhouette of a teapot emptying into a cup, warning, "The Tea Party is trying to take over our Community Colleges May 17." The mailer characterized Gutierrez as a "Sarah Palin-style Tea Partier."
Gutierrez is a social conservative but said she doesn't support Palin or get funding from the tea party.
"I wish I was receiving money from someone," she said."I don't vote on social issues on the college board."
Eric Bauman, the Democratic committee chairman, called Gutierrez a "stealth candidate" whom tea partyers hope will use her position as a stepping stone to higher office.
"There's a reasonable amount of poetic license in writing these things," he said. "The fact we do it in a creative way and grab attention with an image of a teapot … that represents their views. And they are not the views of Democrats."
The committee also sent a local Democratic club, which initially had supported Gutierrez, a "cease and desist" letter demanding it remove "Democratic" from its title. Bauman said it was a routine action to bring the club into compliance with party rules, but added that he had received complaints about its "flagrant promotion" of Republicans including Gutierrez.
Hollywood Highland Democratic Club President Miki Jackson said the letter was a bullying tactic to silence its opposition to Svonkin. The club is no longer backing Gutierrez because of her opposition to gay marriage, Jackson said, but on its website it is urging voters to "cast ballots for ANYBODY BUT SCOTT SVONKIN FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE BOARD (including vegetables, animals and minerals)."
The club, which claims author and socialist Upton Sinclair as a former member, has long flaunted its independence from the party. The club has now plastered its website with black bars labeled "Censored" over every mention of "Democrat" or "Democratic" — including a reference to Thomas Jefferson.
"Svonkin represents the moneyed interests," Jackson said. "Gutierrez has been very vocal: If she is elected she will use her legitimate position to do everything to get to the bottom of what is wrong with the bond program."
Svonkin said he doesn't "have a problem with the Democratic Party questioning [Gutierrez's] fringe supporters or beliefs."
He said he plans to introduce a tough new conflict-of-interest code and comprehensive audits to the bond program.
Gutierrez said she wants to reevaluate the selection of a former employee of one of the district's major contractors as inspector general and to release the findings of a special audit the board commissioned in response to questions about the bond program.
Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.