In most elections for seats on the Los Angeles Community College District board of trustees, the candidates with the backing of the faculty union typically are the victors.
In three of the four races on Tuesday's ballot, the candidates supported by the union enjoy a huge funding edge over their opponents, as they almost always do.
But in the competition for one seat, the faculty-backed candidate, Francesca Vega, has a relatively slim financial advantage over her closest rival, Andra Hoffman. If Hoffman wins, she would join two other trustees, Nancy Pearlman and Ernest Moreno, who were not endorsed by the faculty union in their most recent elections.
The Vega-Hoffman race has been hard-fought as the two camps have traded accusations over false ballot descriptions, fraudulent mailers and ducked debates.
Observers say there could be an added element of surprise this year because the district for the first time won't hold runoffs, thanks to a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by district trustees.
"Whoever gets the most votes wins," said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. "There's the potential for a lot of volatility."
It's unclear whether three trustees who were not supported by the union would make a difference on the seven-person board, especially since trustees often don't vote along union lines. "At the very least, it might make for a more contentious board, which isn't necessarily a bad thing," Regalado said.
Hoffman has been endorsed by the district's staff union and the faculty union from Glendale Community College, and has raised nearly $39,000, according to the most recent filings. Vega, a policy director at Cal State Northridge, has about $52,000.
The Hoffman-Vega race began heating up in December, when Vega's political consultant, Mike Shimpock, sent a letter to city election officials saying that Hoffman's ballot designation of "community college professor" was inaccurate because she does not teach enough courses and does not have the proper credentials. City officials dismissed the complaint.
Hoffman's consultant, Larry Levine, filed a complaint this month with the Los Angeles County Democratic Party after Vega appeared on a mailer that said she and three other candidates were endorsed by "Democratic Party & Leaders." The mailer was paid for by a group supporting Vega, Scott Svonkin, Sydney Kamlager and Mike Fong.
The county Democratic party has not backed either Hoffman or Vega and it condemned the mailer, saying that consultants had "crossed a line."
Both candidates said they are focused on helping the district grow after years of cuts made during the recession, and steering resources to students, including increased counselors and instructors. The district lost about 49,000 students between 2008 and 2013 and reduced its budget by about $100 million between 2009 and 2013.
The board oversees nine campuses and a nearly $1.1-billion budget. The district serves about 149,000 students.
"For five years we were bursting at the seams and we had to turn away thousands of students," Hoffman said. "We need to make sure that we are providing the services students need and that students aren't falling through the cracks."
"When you look at the population we serve, we cannot afford to lose a student," Vega said. "We need to see where we've had success and replicate those programs and best practices and restore services."
The two-year community colleges are accredited by a private panel based in Novato.
Vega said she could bring needed perspective to the board by adding another Latino. "To have someone on the board who reflects the students' experience, I look at that as a positive thing," Vega said. Nearly 55% of the district's students are Latino.
Maria "Sokie" Quintero, a community college professor, and Mark Isler, a teacher and radio host, also are running against Vega and Hoffman.
In the other races, Kamlager, an education policy advisor, has emerged as a clear leader in fund-raising, receiving about $600,000. Her opponents are Jozef "Joe" Thomas Essavi, a small business owner; Sam Kbushyan, a college professor; and Glenn Bailey, who serves on the Northridge East Neighborhood Council.
Svonkin, the only incumbent running for office, has nearly $490,000, according to records. His opponent is Steve Schulte, a former West Hollywood City Council member and mayor.
Fong, an educator, has nearly $173,000, according to filings. His opponents are Joyce Burrell Garcia, an educator, and John C. Burke, who teaches at Valley College, one of the district's campuses.