Democrats Reject Gov.’s Nominee

Times Staff Writer

Democratic lawmakers made their first public rejection of a nominee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday, refusing to reappoint to the state Board of Education a Silicon Valley businessman opposed by advocates of bilingual education.

The fight over Reed Hastings, however, had more to do with Democratic Party politics than with the Republican governor. Hastings is a major Democratic donor first appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2000.

Hastings lost the support of Latino lawmakers with his aggressive support of English-language reading instruction for immigrant children while he was the board’s chairman. After Schwarzenegger renominated him last year, his confirmation hearing in the California Senate was delayed for months because of a lack of support among the Democrats who control the Senate.


Hastings’ rejection came after an impassioned three-hour committee hearing during which he received support from Democratic State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, Silicon Valley business leaders, the California Teachers Federation and charter schools that Hastings had personally helped support.

“The truth is, low-income students and students of color -- especially those struggling to learn English -- have suffered from decades of low expectations,” said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland nonprofit organization to which Hastings has donated. “Under Reed Hastings’ leadership -- as a result of Reed Hastings’ leadership -- that’s changing. Why on Earth would we turn back the clock?”

But many opponents testified that while he was president, the board exceeded its authority by requiring elementary schools to teach students 2 1/2 hours in English each day as a condition of receiving federal funds. That policy was overturned by a court order and subsequent law.

“It’s just wholly inappropriate to construct policies that we know not to be consistent to the law,” said Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

The Senate Rules Committee voted along party lines, 2 to 2, on his nomination, with one Democrat abstaining. But his fate had been determined days before, when the 25-member Democratic caucus met in private and it became clear that Hastings would not win confirmation before the full Senate.

“I’m ashamed today to be a Democrat, to have to come up here to convince Democrats that this is a good thing,” said Steve Barr, president of Green Dot Public Schools, an Inglewood-based charter school group, who testified on Hastings’ behalf.


Hastings’ defeat Wednesday was the first time one of Schwarzenegger’s nominees has been publicly rejected. In the past, former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton had allowed the governor to quietly withdraw the names of candidates in trouble. Burton’s successor, Sen. Don Perata of Oakland, granted Hastings’ request to make his case before the committee.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said in a statement: “It is always unfortunate when political litmus tests are put before what is in the best interest of our children. What signal do you send to parents and children when a qualified and well-respected community leader like Reed Hastings is sacrificed to advocates of a narrowly focused agenda who wield power in Sacramento?”

The nomination had proved particularly nettlesome for Perata, who was narrowly elected to the Senate’s top post last year and has sought to moderate the party’s image. As the Democratic leader, Perata is responsible for raising money for the party, and Hastings and fellow wealthy entrepreneurs have been a fertile source of donations.

Hastings and allies who have taken a strong interest in improving California’s schools gave $14.7 million to state campaigns between 2001 and June 2004, state records show.

“There is no question that the money network that Reed Hastings is part of is very important to getting Democrats elected to office and staying there,” said Garry South, a Democratic consultant and former Davis advisor.

“We’re in serious trouble if Democrats are going to go on a purge and get rid of every single Democrat who has moderate, mainstream views,” he added, “and doesn’t adhere to total orthodoxy as members of the Legislature define it.”


Hastings’ defeat was championed by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), who was Perata’s main rival for the Senate president post. She and other Democratic lawmakers objected to Hastings’ actions on the school board and said he had not shown enough empathy for the concerns of Latino parents. Their views apparently swayed Perata, even though he had said he would have liked to reappoint Hastings.

After the vote, Hastings, the founder of Netflix, the mail-order movie service, said he was pleased that he had been given a hearing to make his case.

“I’m not disappointed for myself,” he said. “I’m disappointed for the 100,000 students who are in bilingual education and get less than 2 1/2 hours in English. They will have a hard time catching up and it’s not fair.”

Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.