The Los Angeles teachers union and a powerful group of civic leaders are sitting out Tuesday's key race for a seat on the Board of Education in what has become a spirited, wide-open contest among seven candidates.
The special election is being called to fill the remainder of the term of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. She represented 74,000-plus students in 92 schools and 37 charter campuses across a swath of south and southwest Los Angeles.
LaMotte could be a searing critic of schools Supt. John Deasy. Yet she rarely mustered the votes to thwart his actions, such as using test scores for part of a teacher's evaluation or replacing instructors at a persistently low-performing campus.
The staying power of Deasy's policies — and possibly his job security — could be affected by who wins the seat on the seven-member board.
Filling that spot with a union ally would appear to be a major priority for United Teachers Los Angeles, which has agitated against Deasy and has been a consistent major funder of candidates.
Conversely, bolstering Deasy would seem mandatory for the other side, a political action committee called the Coalition for School Reform. It has included members of the local civic and business elite as well as philanthropists and outside groups.
"I think everyone is waiting to see what happens and to pick their sides in the next round," said political consultant Eric Hacopian, who is not affiliated with any of the campaigns. "They weren't confident about the candidates. There are too many questions about who is on what side and they decided to punt."
The coalition, which included former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, amassed unlimited contributions from relatively few big-name donors in the 2013 elections. This time, supporters are giving directly to candidates and are limited to $1,100.
Such donors have generally split between candidates Genethia Hudley-Hayes and Alex Johnson, leaning somewhat toward Johnson, who has backed Deasy and the growth of independently managed, public charter schools.
Another factor is that the coalition hasn't always appealed to South L.A. voters. LaMotte, for example, effectively portrayed its funders as carpetbaggers and profiteers.
"Of all the board seats, this is the place where these guys carry the most baggage," Hacopian said. "It's not always helpful to be this group's candidate."
"Our first directive is: Do no harm," said one coalition insider, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak for the group.
The coalition's money has not guaranteed success. Last year, teacher Monica Ratliff, with little money and virtually no support from the union, defeated a lavishly funded coalition candidate.
Johnson hasn't needed the coalition, spending more than the other candidates combined — $296,881 through May 17, the most recent reporting date.
Johnson's war chest substantially reflects the support of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, for whom Johnson, 33, serves as senior education adviser. Ridley-Thomas, in essence, has filled the vacuum left by the union and the coalition.
Hudley-Hayes, 69, a board member from 1999 through 2003, has raised $105,090, including $37,000 in personal loans. She lost her reelection bid to LaMotte, who was backed by the teachers union.
Retired district administrator George McKenna, 72, also has raised an amount of money that makes him competitive, observers said.
He collected $122,533, including a $10,000 personal loan, relying on long-standing community ties. He has worked as a senior administrator in L.A., Inglewood, Compton and Pasadena.
The union disliked McKenna's involvement in overseeing the replacement of teachers at Fremont High; Deasy allies worry that he will challenge the superintendent's actions, as he has in the past.
If no one wins a majority in Tuesday's primary, the top two finishers will face off in August.
McKenna is considered a contender to get into a runoff. If he does, he could become the choice of either the union or the coalition. That's another reason, both sides said, to wait and see.
All the other candidates are short on cash. Substitute teacher and assistant pastor Omarosa Manigault, 40, had a varied career that included a run as a reality-TV personality.
The financially stressed union is looking ahead to a possible runoff and to four other school board elections within the next year. Those contests will decide four-year terms, whereas the special election winner serves only through June 2015.
The union opted to endorse three candidates with longtime union ties, but to provide only a $1,100 contribution to each.
They are: Sherlett Hendy-Newbill, 41, a Dorsey High physical education teacher, who is close to the union's incoming leadership; Rachel Johnson, 54, a veteran elementary instructor and a Gardena City Council member; and Hattie B. McFrasier, 65, a longtime union activist who highlights her experience as a counselor and teacher working with students of all ages.
"This strategy is stupid," said one union insider, who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak. "Everybody realizes that endorsing three people isn't effective."
A similar approach by the union failed last year in defeating incumbent Monica Garcia.
Vice President Gregg Solkovits said, in defense of the union: "It doesn't make much sense to put money into a race where UTLA has so many divergent opinions."
Hendy-Newbill said the union endorsement helps — if people know about it. She's relying on a core of volunteers — teachers, students and other supporters — to knock on doors and address envelopes.