In early ballots, George McKenna and Alex Johnson appeared headed to an August runoff to fill an open seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education.
McKenna was comfortably in front, with Johnson a strong second, well ahead of five other candidates who were bunched together. The first tally typically consists of votes cast before election day, which can make up a substantial percentage of the total.
At stake is the South and southwest L.A. seat held by Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. The outcome could influence the direction of the nation's second-largest school system and could affect the job security of L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.
McKenna, 73, a retired senior school district administrator, relied on longtime community ties. He also raised enough campaign money, $154,440, to make him competitive.
“He’s of the community,” said Roxie McClenton, 64, who voted at a West Washington Boulevard church. “He’s been a principal in various schools, and he’s more in tune to what the parents and students need.”
Voter Orley Frost Jr., 50, remembers McKenna as his junior high principal, who rewarded hard-working students by letting them swim in his pool and making them lunch.
“He was serious about the community and the kids,” Frost said.
Johnson, 33, the senior education advisor to L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, had to overcome limited name recognition but successfully built on the connections of Ridley-Thomas, whose territory overlaps substantially with the school board district. Through the May 28 contribution reporting deadline, Johnson had spent $353,468, more than the others combined.
In addition, Johnson benefited from two independent campaigns: one from the California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates and another from the California Black Political Action Committee.
A blitz of pro-Johnson mailers was persuasive for Gilberto Sealey, who voted at a Mid-City fire station.
“I liked his theme that the safety of children comes first,” Sealey said. Johnson's materials also suggested that the candidate was serious about pushing for needed change, Sealey said.
For his father, Vincent Sealey, 91, the driving factor was Ridley-Thomas.
“I don’t know Johnson, but I know Ridley-Thomas,” he said. “We vote for people we know and for people we’ve been referred to by the people we know.”
Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who raised $106,040, touted the endorsements of two former mayors: Republican Richard Riordan and Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa. Neither is universally popular in South L.A.
Other candidates trailed sharply in fundraising.
The seat has been held by an African American woman for decades. Hudley-Hayes won the seat in 1999 and narrowly lost it in 2003 to LaMotte.
Two influential — and usually opposing — political players did not wage independent campaigns in this round: the Los Angeles teachers union and a group of civic leaders associated with a political action committee, the Coalition for School Reform.
The cash-strapped and divided United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed three candidates: high school teacher and union activist Sherlett Hendy Newbill; elementary teacher and Gardena City Councilwoman Rachel Johnson; and retired teacher and counselor Hattie McFrazier.
Also on the ballot was Omarosa Manigault, a substitute teacher and assistant pastor, known for a run on a reality TV show.