In this week's election for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education, one side had deep pockets and extensive political connections; the other side had people such as Orley Frost Jr.
Frost, 50, said he remembers the winner — George McKenna — from McKenna's days as assistant principal of Mount Vernon Junior High School, near Frost's polling place. "When students did well, he'd invite a group over to his house to use his swimming pool and make them lunch," Frost recalled. McKenna always sent the message that "he was serious about the community and the kids."
Frost and others like him were the key to the success of McKenna, 73, whose five decades of experience in local school districts appeared to pay off.
The tally in Tuesday's special election was 53% for McKenna and 47% for Alex Johnson, 34, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
"As we were walking the streets in the campaign, some people recalled him as a principal and others made more general comments like: 'We've known him for 20-odd years,' " said Gary Borden, part of the pro-Johnson camp. "And they had a significant amount of loyalty to Dr. McKenna."
Just over 8% of voters turned out in the oddly timed election, which coincided with the first day of classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Both sides speculate that a substantial number of voters had personal links to McKenna.
"I received a return on my 50-year investment in families and students in so many parts of the Greater Los Angeles area," McKenna said Wednesday. "My successful work of improving student outcomes and my service to the community engendered trust among many."
McKenna's win is the latest setback for well-funded groups that have sought to strengthen the hand of L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy in the nation's second-largest school system. In addition to a core of local philanthropists, the donors have included then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave $1.35 million in a recent election. Also donating heavily were groups championing policies favored by leading corporate executives and, in some cases, by the Obama administration.
Last year, board incumbent Steve Zimmer thwarted them by winning reelection with fewer resources. And elementary school teacher Monica Ratliff won an open seat with a fraction of the funding that these groups gave to her opponent.
Neither called for Deasy's removal, but they have been willing to challenge his decisions.
In this election, as before, the money advantage resided powerfully with the losing side. To top McKenna, Johnson had to close a 20-point gap from the June primary. He almost accomplished it with a $1.5-million campaign, a nearly 3-1 funding advantage.
Campaign cash, however, has never guaranteed success in District 1, which stretches across south and southwest Los Angeles. The previous three elections were won by Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who successfully characterized the large donors as outside interests seeking to meddle and profiteer. Her own financial backing came from the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.
When LaMotte died in December, the contest became wide open. Johnson had some advantages — the lack of an incumbent being among the most important. And, in a district in which the largest voting bloc is black, Johnson enjoyed the backing of Ridley-Thomas, the most influential local elected official. Other officeholders quickly fell in line behind Johnson, who was little known despite earning good marks from some community leaders for his work under Ridley-Thomas.
And when Ridley-Thomas steered huge sums into the race, he could not be cast as an outsider.
Johnson also received major contributions from advocates, such as Borden, for charter schools, which are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Given the popularity of charters — and their emerging and well-funded ability to mobilize voters — this advantage could have been crucial.
The Johnson campaign also proved strategically adept. It unearthed damaging disclosures, for example, about another contender, Genethia Hudley-Hayes, that helped knock her out of the runoff between the top two finishers.
"Six months ago, Alex was an unknown education policy advisor who got into a race against several well-known public figures," said Roy Behr, Johnson's campaign consultant. "While he didn't win, the campaign made up a lot of ground in both the primary and runoff. Not many people would have predicted that Alex could have come this close."
The McKenna campaign was far from defenseless. He called on his many connections for numerous, though relatively small, contributions. And after the primary, the teachers union funded an independent campaign on his behalf.
Toward the finish, a central Johnson strategy was to turn McKenna's experience on its head, with mailers suggesting that he was to blame for major problems and scandals in the school systems he worked for or helped lead.
This message and many others exasperated retired Deputy Walter Hart. He said he tabulated about seven calls a day for Johnson over a month.
"I've never gotten so many calls and people coming to my door," he said.
In the end, it was the negative fliers from supporters of Johnson that helped ensure Hart got to the polls — to vote for McKenna.
"Everyone around here knows who McKenna is," Hart said. "They know who has done work around the area. They want to reward the guy who has been here working in the schools."