A June special election to replace former Los Angeles school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte has the potential to alter the political power dynamic and the overall direction of the nation's second-largest school district.
LaMotte, who died in December, was close to the teachers union and was a critic of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. Although she rarely played an influential role on the seven-member board, her replacement has the opportunity to do so.
A vigorous and strategic successor — aligned ideologically with LaMotte's views — would pose a hurdle to Deasy. The election of a Deasy ally, on the other hand, could steer a board majority back toward a more supportive, ancillary role.
This campaign also involves different factions within the black political establishment.
District 1, which stretches across a wide swath of south and southwest Los Angeles, has been held by an African American for decades. That officeholder is viewed, especially in the black community, as the particular guardian of black students, many of whom have struggled in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Black voters make up that district's largest voting bloc. They also account for a substantial amount of that area's school enrollment (28%), although most students (62%) are Latino.
Within the black community, many civic leaders pressed unsuccessfully to fill LaMotte's final 18 months with an appointee. Then they turned their attention to the special election.
This group is ideologically diverse. It includes LaMotte loyalists who want a successor like her: LaMotte challenged Deasy and could have supported replacing him.
But also among them are longtime activists willing to work with Deasy. The superintendent's focus on reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions, particularly among black and Latino boys, has impressed many. As for LaMotte, they respected the longest-serving board member but sometimes complained that she accomplished far too little in office.
The camp is reasonably united in its wariness of outside interests and what it regards as patronizing rhetoric.
"In general, African American voters are suspicious of this whole education reform movement," said political consultant Eric Hacopian. "They think of it as some Trojan horse for rich white people who want to privatize schools."
Much of the black civic leadership — including U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) — initially discussed appointing retired senior administrator George McKenna. Now many of them would like to elect him.
McKenna, who retired in mid-2012, was a rarity within L.A. Unified, a Deasy underling who was willing to disagree strongly with the schools chief to his face — albeit behind the scenes. McKenna's stubborn independence and frankness have unsettled the union and Deasy allies alike — making him all the more appealing to some supporters.
McKenna's problem could be to identify a source of substantial campaign funding.
Another contending faction is led by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has built a political base in his county district, which overlaps substantially with LaMotte turf.
In South L.A., when there is a fight, it's "generally between Mark Ridley-Thomas and the counter-Ridley-Thomas faction," Hacopian said.
Ridley-Thomas is widely expected to back Alex Johnson, a senior aide to the supervisor who declared his candidacy last week.
An alliance with Ridley-Thomas could make the difference either for the teachers union, which is short on money and unity, or Deasy allies, who have an image problem.
United Teachers Los Angeles had almost unilaterally financed LaMotte's three successful board campaigns. But it's beset by internal divisions, its own upcoming election and financial strains. And additional costly board elections are looming in 2015.
Union opponents also are expected to step in. They've included philanthropist Eli Broad and former Mayor Richard Riordan. In the last election cycle, they were joined by wealthy out-of-town contributors, such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
These philanthropists see Deasy as a key ally in their efforts to limit teacher seniority protections and to base instructors' pay and evaluations in part on student test scores.
Their donations delivered little return in 2013 board elections. And in her reelection campaigns in 2007 and 2011, LaMotte successfully cast such wealthy donors as untrustworthy outside interests.
The backing of Ridley-Thomas, if he gave it, could allay community concerns about these donors.
"I happen to be indigenous to this terrain and intimately familiar with it," Ridley-Thomas said in an interview. "And I expect to credibly advocate for the people who reside in the 1st District."
Another candidate is former school board member Genethia Hudley-Hayes. In her successful 1999 campaign, Hudley-Hayes enjoyed backing from both the union and donors allied with then-Mayor Riordan. But in 2003, the union left her for LaMotte and the donors were focused on other races; Hudley-Hayes lost narrowly to LaMotte. History aside, Hudley-Hayes could be a compromise choice for any of the factions.
The teachers union has in-house options: Sherlett Hendy Newbill, a teacher and union chapter chair at Dorsey High, and Rachel Johnson, a Gardena City Council member and longtime L.A. Unified elementary teacher.
(Retired teacher Jimmie Woods Gray, who serves on the city's Board of Fire Commissioners, indicated she would accept an appointment, but she hasn't confirmed she would run for office.)
"Whoever can accumulate money in the shortest period of time will be formidable," said Rachel Johnson. At the same time, "you can't underestimate the awareness of the voter. This now has created a firestorm of interest in the 1st District."