Los Angeles Board of Education candidates Monica Ratliff, left, and Antonio… (Los Angeles Times )
The race for an open seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education was close in early returns with Monica Ratliff ahead despite financial support and union backing that made her opponent, Antonio Sanchez, a heavy favorite.
In the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees election, incumbent Nancy Pearlman was leading challenger David Vela, according to returns.
Sanchez, 31, had the benefit of the combined clout of labor unions along with a deep-pocketed political-action committee spearheaded by outgoing L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which amassed more than $1 million on his behalf for the runoff.
Ratliff, a 43-year-old teacher, countered with a low-visibility grassroots campaign that made an issue of Sanchez's big-money backers and relied on support from individual educators and newspaper endorsements.
Early mail-in ballots and partial returns from precincts put Ratliff in front, but her lead was precarious.
"We don't know what's going to happen at the end," Ratliff said. "But it's nice to see that there were a number of voters who had faith in me as a candidate and were able to look past the glossy fliers and the money."
The mayor's group, called the Coalition for School Reform, threw its full support behind Sanchez mainly because of his unreserved enthusiasm for L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.
Ratliff recently pledged to retain the superintendent as well, but she'd previously suggested he might need to be replaced.
Deasy's more controversial moves include his push to limit job protections for teachers and to make student standardized test scores a key measure of a teacher's performance evaluation.
The major backers of the pro-Deasy coalition included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ($1.35 million), L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad ($500,000) and StudentsFirst ($350,000), an advocacy group that was set up by former District of Columbia schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to counter the political strength of teachers unions.
The influential teachers union mainly stayed out of the east Valley race — endorsing both candidates but without providing financial support or volunteers.
The campaign featured few public forums and was dominated by outside efforts on behalf of Sanchez that included mail, phone calls to likely voters, and precinct walkers. Both candidates knocked on doors, but Ratliff did so outside school hours, declining to take time away from her fifth-grade class at San Pedro Elementary.
The deluge of pro-Sanchez calls and advertising made its point with Van Nuys resident Elizabeth Ayala, 29, who works at a local church and cast her ballot at Van Nuys High School. "I think he's a good candidate," Ayala said, adding that she made her decision after reading Sanchez's campaign mailers.
She liked that Sanchez attended local schools and knows the area. Ayala doesn't remember receiving any information about Ratliff.
Brad Goodman, however, voted for Ratliff — but not because her message had reached him. The 54-year-old actor and telemarketing manager "tried to vote for women today," he said. "I just have a general sense that women are underrepresented in leadership positions in our society."
Neither voter had an opinion about Deasy. Nor did any others among the voters who agreed to be interviewed as they trickled out of polling stations in Van Nuys and Pacoima over several hours Tuesday.
Helping to get out the Sanchez message were 90 door-to-door volunteers and paid canvassers from Local 99 of Service Employees International, which represents about 30,000 non-teaching workers in L.A. Unified. The L.A. County Federation of Labor also poured in resources for Sanchez, who was a mid-level staffer in November in labor's successful campaign to defeat an anti-labor measure.
Sanchez also has worked as a field deputy for a legislator and was an aide to Villaraigosa.
In the end, outside spending for Sanchez surpassed $2 million, which dwarfed the individual fundraising of both Sanchez ($152,000) and Ratliff ($53,000).
In the March 5 primary, Sanchez claimed 44% of voters, with Ratliff next at 34%, setting up the runoff. The east Valley seat is a mostly working-class Latino area, but includes middle-class enclaves. Enrollment at area schools is mostly Latino and low-income.
Two other races for the seven-member school board were settled in the March primary: Coalition-backed incumbent Monica Garcia won, as did fellow incumbent Steve Zimmer, whom the coalition tried to defeat.
In the contest for a seat on the board of the Los Angeles Community College District, which covers an enormous swath of L.A. County, three-term incumbent Pearlman, 65, was pitted against Vela, 38, a longtime legislative aide who serves on the Montebello Board of Education.
Vela was backed heavily by labor, although labor opposition hadn't stopped Pearlman from winning before. She casts herself as an outsider with valuable inside experience.
Vela said he offered fresh ideas, seasoned by his experience in Montebello Unified and his background working for elected officials.