4:55 PM PST, February 23, 2013
If you're like me, your mailbox is getting stuffed with political mailers.
What to do?
The best course of action is to take a shovel and dig a hole in the backyard, toss the mailers in and set them ablaze.
At best, they're filled with useless simplifications and generalizations about candidates and issues, and a lot of them contain gross exaggerations or distortions, if not outright lies.
If you live in Los Angeles and it seems like you're getting more of this junk than ever, it's because millions of dollars are being spent by committees to either support or demolish candidates for City Council, mayor and school board. Not only for mailers, of course, but also for equally vapid and nasty TV ads. This is how democracy works, courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, which lifted limits on so-called independent expenditures, thereby turning elections into cash-driven free-for-alls in which candidates are almost beside the point.
Take the current campaigns for seats on the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education. Three spots are up for grabs, but this is less an election than a local skirmish in a national war that's raging over control of public schools. In the current battle, the local teachers' union and its allies are taking on the "reformers" and their supporters, some of whom live far, far from Los Angeles.
I kept hearing last week from readers who were having conniptions over New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $1-million donation to the local Coalition for School Reform. They said he should mind his own business, and they called this another example of an attempt by rich guys to privatize public schools, or at least turn them over to their charter school cronies.
Actually, it was Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who helped shake down Bloomberg. But I called Bloomberg's office to find out if he was aware that at least part of his money is being spent to distort the truth and misinform voters, which I'll explain in a minute.
"Mike Bloomberg is proud to help level the playing field on behalf of children and their families," a Bloomberg spokesman responded. "The union may not like it, but they should get used to it because he is just getting started."
That's more than a threat; it's a live grenade.
To be honest, I welcome anyone — including outsiders — whose goal is to improve public education. But the conversation has become so philosophically and politically polarized that it's hard to know who, if anyone, is acting most purely in the interest of kids.
On the contentious issue of charter schools, I think it's fair to say some do pretty well and some don't.
And although some of L.A. Unified's shortcomings can be blamed on union inflexibility, some is also due to administrative inefficiency and to parents who don't pay enough attention to their kids' academics. And all those problems are dwarfed by the fact that California is near the bottom when it comes to school funding.
I'd like to see more union give on teacher evaluations, work rules and tenure. But I'd also like anti-union forces to quit scapegoating teachers, because we owe the majority of them a debt of gratitude.
In Los Angeles, the stakes are high because L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy seems to have convinced enough people that he may get ousted if this election doesn't go his way, even though that's an unlikely, long-shot scenario.
Deasy is a creative and effective leader who ought to keep doing what he's been doing, for the most part. But I don't agree with him on everything, and I don't think we're well served if everyone on the board stands up and bows every time he speaks. That goes the other way too. It'd be disaster, for sure, if everyone on the board were a union lackey.
That brings me to incumbent board member and former teacher Steve Zimmer, who has been nobody's stooge. Zimmer, at times, has tried to bridge differences among the warring parties, winning supporters and making enemies on both sides in the process. But there's a price to pay for independence, it seems. Zimmer is under attack by the Villaraigosa-aligned Coalition for School Reform, which supports Zimmer's opponent Kate Anderson. They see Anderson, an attorney and L.A. Unified parent, as more inclined to butt heads with the union and more likely to support Deasy.
Even some of his supporters say Zimmer can be an angst-ridden, hand-wringing worrier who takes too long to decide where he stands. But I respect his answer to that charge.
"I've spent my life immersed in these issues, and when a game-changing vote or policy issue comes up, I damn well should wring my hands."
And it's not as if Zimmer is rabidly pro-union and anti-Deasy. He's proclaimed his support for the superintendent and has ticked off the union because of it. But in a game of lesser evils, the unions have thrown in their lot with Zimmer, which has made his opponents all the more determined to drive him out.
The way I see it, we've got two capable people running who both seem to care passionately about L.A. Unified's 600,000-plus students. But politics being what it is, campaign strategists on each side have polluted mailboxes and airwaves with exaggeration and distortion. It's a dirty game, and you either sling mud or get buried alive.
Are you paying attention, kids?
The hit pieces on Zimmer are paid for in part by Bloomberg, whose name is on mailers, and the stink bombs dropped on Anderson are paid for in part by United Teachers Los Angeles.
If you'd prefer to make up your own mind about who Zimmer and Anderson are, or if you want to learn about the candidates for the other two seats, you can watch all three debates at http://www.unitedwayla.org.
And as for the junk mail headed your way in the next two weeks, you know what to do with it.
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