LAUSD School Board Race: The George McKenna Story Continues

School pencils.
School pencils. | Photo: CliffMuller/Flickr/Creative Commons License

George McKenna is the most reluctant candidate for public office that I've ever met. I think he's also the most qualified.

Those things seem to correlate -- the more principled a person, the less likely he or she get into electoral politics. This has been especially true in black communities, where a dwindling number of seats in increasingly Latino districts has meant that black candidates are handpicked and predetermined by sitting black electeds who are anxious about maintaining continuity or their own power, often both. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the fight currently being waged for the seat in District 1, the one significantly black district left in Los Angeles Unified that stretches from deep South Central to the Westside.

Normally school board races are relatively sleepy affairs, but not this time. And it has a twist: The intense competition is revealing not just the increased stakes of any race involving black candidates these days, but a rare movement within the black community itself to challenge its own conventional political wisdom of the current kingmaker running a candidate who is less than ideal, but who's been anointed to be next in line. Some folks have always grumbled about this dynamic, but it tends to be way things are done. But this time people aren't keeping quiet.

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This where George McKenna comes in. McKenna is 73, a veteran, nationally recognized former teacher, educator, administrator and former regional LAUSD superintendent, and top superintendent at tough districts like Inglewood and Compton. His passion and commitment to the cause of educational justice is legion, as is a maverick streak that helped turn around the sinking fortunes at Washington High School in South Central when he was principal there (the story was made into a 1986 movie starring a young Denzel Washington). Retired since 2012, he was nonetheless still busy and had no intention of running for office, something he'd never done and never wanted to do.

And thenMarguerite LaMotte, a good friend and his successor as principal at Washington, died unexpectedly in December. The board could either appoint a replacement until LaMotte's term is up in 2015, or hold an election. Education advocates urged an appointment, specifically McKenna, to continue representation of the district at a critical time in which the board was set to make decisions about the budget, the implementation of Common Core and other big matters.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas wanted an election so that he could run his education deputy, Alex Johnson, for the seat. With that surely in mind, the board opted for an election, despite the fact it meant that District 1 has had no official representation for the last six months and won't have it for a while longer. That didn't faze Ridley-Thomas, whose power, money and, connections seemed to guarantee the success of Johnson, a virtual unknown.

This is where the principled opposition would normally fold and make the best of things, maybe even see what concession prize it might extract from Ridley-Thomas. But because public education has been such a political football for the last decade or so, and because black students are stagnating and falling behind at discomfiting rates in an unforgiving new economy, the opposition went on the offensive. It appealed to McKenna, who is known and widely respected in the community, to run for the seat. McKenna agreed.

McKenna says he doesn't like campaigning at all. He likes the people just fine, loves nothing better than to talk about issues with them, the bigger the better. He just doesn't like the machinations of politics, like raising money and currying favor and such. Schmoozing doesn't come naturally to him, to put it mildly.

Early on, he sat around a table and pretty much told his own supporters why he most likely wouldn't win. That said, McKenna is fiercely committed to the campaign and more committed to winning it. He has a competitive streak, but more than that, he is convinced that what he's doing is the best thing for students. He knows Ridley-Thomas well, has worked with him over the years. But certain issues, he says, are bigger than any one person, or even any one friendship. "I'm the most qualified candidate," he says with typical bluntness but no hint of ego. "If I'm trying to fly an airplane, but I'm not a pilot, then I'm out of place. I'm on a suicide mission. But I do know I'm qualified, so I'm unapologetic."

This isn't a suicide mission, though McKenna is well behind Johnson in fundraising. But he has garnered impressive grassroots support -- people do know his name -- as well as support from black elected officials, many of whom risk losing favor with Ridley-Thomas, arguably the most powerful black pol in the state. However they feel about the supervisor, McKenna supporters and campaign staffers do seem primarily motivated not by disdain for Ridley-Thomas, but by putting into office the best candidate for the job; his campaign manager, Jewett Walker, is a 20-year veteran who quit the business in order to focus on pastoring his church. The McKenna cause, he said, brought him back.

George McKenna's story was featured in a 1986 CBS television movie starring Denzel Washington.
George McKenna's story was featured in a 1986 CBS television movie starring Denzel Washington.

School board tends to be used as a stepping stone for higher office. At 73, McKenna has no such aspirations, though he freely admits that if he wins next month, he will run again as the incumbent in 2015 when the term actually expires. "The interesting thing is that I really do not enjoy (politics), but if I succeed I'll win the right to run again," he says. Ridley-Thomas' clout, which prevented him from getting a key county endorsement, among other things, is in some ways "discouraging, but I don't feel defeated."

The novice candidate's schedule at this point in more or less nonstop, with meeting and greeting, events, candidate forums, fundraisers, appearances at churches and the like seven days a week. The name recognition and individual support that's such a boon is also a conundrum: many folks giving in small amounts can't match the financial firepower of a few big donors. But McKenna says, optimistically, that the more successful he gets, the more money he'll get. "I'm just trying to win the race," he says. But he insists it's not for the sake of power. "I don't have power, I have responsibilities. Power is fleeting," he says in the fast, clipped accent of his native New Orleans. "If you do have power, it shouldn't be able to be taken away from you. " He laughs. "Give a man a little power, and you'll see what kind of character he has." He doesn't name names.

While McKenna believes that the time for his leadership is critical, he says there's never been a time when good educational leadership has been anything less. But for various reasons, it's been harder and harder to effect. "Going back to the Watts Riots, it's been the most important thing in the black community, but we short-shrift it," he says. "We're not willing to put money in schools that need it most." That, he says, is mostly about politics and hierarchies of race and class. "People see it as taking money away from them," he muses. "Class separates people differently than race does. If you're poor, you come from another side of town. People say, 'I'm not going there, and don't bring your side over here. If you do, you have to act my way.'" He says he was conscious of this at a recent candidate's forum on the westside, where the audience was largely white. "Parents told me, 'I go to a local elementary and middle school, but not the high school,'" he says. '"They say, 'it's too big.' I know what they're saying."

Negotiating the fears and the desires of disparate constituencies with historically opposed interests and even bringing them together is the kind of impossible challenge McKenna seems to welcome. For now, however, he's trying to get to the point where he can entertain that challenge, and others. Which means winning the race in front of him. "I say that the last thing I wanted to do was politics, but that's the second-to-last thing I want to do," he says. " The last thing I want to do is lose."

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