Schoolyard Bully? A Look at Mudslinging in the LAUSD Race

Jewett Walker predicted it would come to this.

Back in April, when George McKenna finished first in the primary election to fill the LAUSD school board seat in District 1 vacated by the death of Marguerite LaMotte, McKenna supporters were elated. So was Walker, McKenna's campaign manager. But Walker, a veteran of the business, was looking ahead to the August runoff, and he didn't like what he saw. He's seen a lot of dirt and desperation, and he figured that McKenna's opponent in the runoff, Alex Johnson, would at some point indulge in both.

It wouldn't seem that Johnson would need to. An education aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Johnson has had access to plenty of money and big-name endorsements -- far more than McKenna -- but he lost to McKenna in the primary by a whopping 20 percentage points. The twist to this story of many twists is that McKenna has name recognition and a community base, while Johnson has neither. Walker figured the opposition would try and make up the ground not by polishing up the credentials of its candidate, but by going negative on the other guy. It's become kind of standard political practice.

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What worried Walker specifically was the possibility that Johnson/Ridley-Thomas would somehow blame McKenna for the child molestation scandal at Miramonte Elementary in South Central that involved a single teacher who secretly executed lewd acts over a number of years; McKenna, a veteran teacher and educator now retired, was at the time an LAUSD regional administrator of the area that includes Miramonte.

Walker turned out to be right -- about Johnson' s strategy of going negative, which includes but has certainly not been limited to an attempt to tarnish McKenna's reputation with the Miramonte incident. But what he didn't foresee was just how fiercely McKenna supporters would fight back and how this whole school board race, which wasn't even supposed to happen in the first place, has become nothing less than a referendum on the quality and ethics of local black leadership.

Since April, this has not been simply a contest between McKenna and Johnson, between the old black guard and those who aspire to the new: it's been a calling to the carpet of years of politics as usual, which holds that the kingmaker chooses who runs for what office and who sits it out. Black voters, used to following the lead of the kingmaker who is close with church pastors and other organizational leaders, follows suit.

Not this time.

This time everything is scrambled, and many would say for the good. This time, the older, more experienced candidate is the grassroots favorite and the upstart with ideals; the younger one with virtually no experience represents the political establishment and moneyed interests (to date, Johnson's campaign has raised an astonishing $1 million, most of it from pro-charter outfits and the African American Voter Education and Registration Project, a nonprofit founded by Ridley-Thomas. McKenna has been spent outspent almost 3 to 1).

But more egregious than the big money being thrown at a small but critical race, which has more than a whiff of Tea Party strategy about it, is the betrayal. McKenna, you see, is not just old guard. He was a longtime friend and mentor of Ridley-Thomas back when Ridley-Thomas was a teacher and eventually head of the Southern Leadership Leadership Conference. McKenna and Ridley-Thomas were not just friends but fellow black progressives fighting for racial justice via education and public policy, part of a cadre of post-'60s activists more united by common concerns than they were separated by age or generation; they moved forward together. That doesn't mean they moved in lockstep or agreed on everything, but let's just they occupied the same philosophical space.

But McKenna standing in the way of Ridley-Thomas's kingmaker ambition has broken that longstanding agreement to disagree. McKenna is no political naif, but he seems genuinely hurt by the Johnson campaign's smears and distortions of his record on aiding the city's most vulnerable students. For McKenna, it's gotten personal.

The other issue in play in this board election that has generally been missing in elections is a question: what do black folks really need in a candidate? What's good for us? The fate of black students in public schools has resuscitated that question. For many blacks, public schools have always held the promise of racial equality or at least equal opportunity. Ridley-Thomas may be the new kingmaker, but the Johnson money is flowing from charter school organizations and pro-charter millionaires like Richard Riordan and Eli Broad, folks who disavow that public school social contract.

Black folks are not only taking offense to the negative attacks against McKenna, a man who many of them know, but they're also wondering if the privatization so long touted as urban reform is really good for black students who always lose out on these kinds of trends. Beneath the discomfiting money dynamic is also a discomfiting racial dynamic working against, not for, African Americans. Whatever Ridley-Thomas really believes about public schools and the nature of reform, it appears he has firmly allied himself with the so-called charter school reformists. It's an alliance he might eventually regret.

Thanks also to this school board race, black people are saying openly what they had been saying privately: Ridley-Thomas, arguably the most powerful black pol in the state, is throwing his weight around at the expense of constituents' interests.

Betty Pleasant has written a long-running weekly column for the Los Angeles Wave, "Soulvine," a feature famous for its straight talk; after excoriating Johnson and Ridley-Thomas in a July column, she found the column spiked and herself in the cross hairs of her bosses at the paper, who wanted her to tone it down. She refused, and two weeks ago, resigned. 

Even the black elected officials like Diane Watson who endorse Johnson decry the mudslinging at McKenna, though they don't have the gumption, or the political capital, to withdraw their endorsement. I actually think they're all keeping their heads low, waiting for this rare black politics brouhaha to blow over on Aug. 12 so that things can get back to normal. But don't bet on it.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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