L.A. ELECTIONS 5TH DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD : Every Vote Counts Now in Tight Runoff Race

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Those who cast ballots in the Los Angeles Unified school board runoff had ample evidence Wednesday that their votes truly counted, as city election workers began combing through thousands of uncounted ballots to determine whether a lead of 26 votes for teacher David Tokofsky would hold.

The gap in the school board results is so narrow that one neighborhood, even one extended family, could have made a difference. It was one of the slimmest margins in Los Angeles history, likened by many to the 1993 City Council race in which Richard Alarcon was ahead by only 164 votes, and won by 234.

"This is nail-biting time," said Inola Henry, head of the political arm of the teachers union, the group whose support helped Tokofsky spring back from a wide primary gap.

The laborious process of checking and rechecking voter signatures could take more than a week, leaving Tokofsky, his opponent, parent activist Lucia V. Rivera, and their campaign posses to mull over where their efforts were most successful and whether one more get-out-the-vote sweep would have made the difference.

There are about 4,000 uncounted ballots from Tuesday's election, most of them tardy absentee votes, which must be opened by hand. Several hundred may be from the Eastside/San Fernando Valley district--where more than 22,000 ballots were cast--and their contents will not be tabulated until at least June 16, according to election chief Christine Heffron.

As they waited Wednesday, both candidates were pictures of politeness, saying they are thankful that the campaigns for the 5th District board seat did not let ethnic politics fuel a campaign of hatred on either side. Rivera is Latina and was endorsed by many of the region's Latino-elected officials. Tokofsky is white, but speaks fluent Spanish.

The 5th District was redrawn in 1992 to link blue-collar Latino areas on the Eastside with similar neighborhoods in the eastern San Fernando Valley, creating a district intended to favor a Latino.

But a Latino candidate is hardly a shoo-in because of the chasm between population and voter registration: Latinos make up 68% of the residents, but fewer than half of the voters.

A regional breakdown of the unofficial vote tallies found Tokofsky more than 200 votes ahead in Councilman Richard Alatorre's Eastside district, despite Alatorre's early primary endorsement of Rivera. However the city of San Fernando, which is 82% Latino, went strongly for Rivera, as did Councilman Mike Hernandez's central Los Angeles district.

"We did a survey of Latinos the night before, on Monday, and 40% of them were voting for David," said Tokofsky campaign manager Sarah Bradshaw. "The fact that some of them went with David is no surprise."

Together, the candidates spent more than $300,000 on the primary and runoff campaigns, burying voters in an avalanche of mail toward the end.

Rivera said she was especially crippled by a mailer pointing out that she had only a high school diploma and others highlighting her ties to school administrators, who contributed heavily to her campaign.

"If it was only administrators, that would be fair, but it was everyone," she said, referring to her backing by unions representing school police, classified and maintenance personnel.

Voter turnout in the race was nearly 14%--far higher than the election's overall 10.9% showing--which both campaigns attributed to massive efforts to get voters out of their homes and to the polls. In both cases, that push relied heavily on the youthful enthusiasm and energy of students.

On Monday and Tuesday, at least 200 high school and college students answered campaign pitches and volunteered to walk precincts on behalf of the candidates.

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