In a surprise move, the Los Angeles teachers union Wednesday night voted to endorse incumbent San Fernando Valley school board member Jon M. Lauritzen for reelection, setting up a potential confrontation with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the union's putative ally.
In another race, the news was better for Villaraigosa, who is trying to cement an influential role in the Los Angeles Unified School District. There will be no union endorsement for the open seat in District 7, which stretches from Watts to the Harbor area. In effect, that means the union sits out that race in the March primary, which could allow a Villaraigosa-endorsed candidate to dominate, given the mayor's fundraising muscle and appeal.
Four of seven seats on the board are on the ballot. For months, that election's outcome has loomed as a milestone event in Villaraigosa's quest for substantial control over the Los Angeles Unified School District. The current school board majority, including Lauritzen, opposed legislation that will give Villaraigosa substantial authority over local schools, and then sued to overturn the law.
The lawsuit will have its day in court Friday. Whatever the outcome, appeals are likely, and the disposition of the new school board could matter. Historically, United Teachers Los Angeles has been the most influential force in school board elections. But in this election cycle, Villaraigosa's impact is widely expected to count for just as much.
The subject of an endorsement in District 3, the seat held by Lauritzen, was not on the agenda for the evening meeting of the 300-plus-member House of Representatives. The union leadership had planned to handle the endorsement process for all seats with incumbents starting in January. The goal was to keep pressure on incumbents to deliver for the union in ongoing contract talks. Among other things, the union has demanded a 9% raise. The district's counteroffer is 3%.
But the membership crossed up that strategy by bringing the Lauritzen endorsement directly to the floor -- circumventing the union's endorsement process and denying challengers an opportunity to state their case before the UTLA interview committee.
Union Vice President Joshua Pechthalt argued against endorsing Lauritzen at this meeting, while also making a point to praise Lauritzen's record effusively. The counterargument, which won the day, was, simply put: Why wait?
"I feel somewhat relieved, to tell you the truth," Lauritzen said later. "I'm an incumbent and I've been helpful to them. I've been a teacher. That was my whole career. I've always worked for teacher issues."
He added: "The main thing this does is give me some momentum to go forward with the campaign because I'll be able to pull in other endorsers as well."
In an interview after the vote, Pechthalt called the vote "strategically disappointing."
A bigger disappointment was avoided minutes later, when the leadership fought off a move to endorse another incumbent, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who represents District 1 in South Los Angeles.
LaMotte is not nearly as popular with the UTLA membership as Lauritzen, but the events clearly signaled that a union endorsement for LaMotte is not out of the question, especially if the union gives her good marks on contract negotiations.
A LaMotte endorsement would almost certainly put the union at odds with the mayor. Like Lauritzen, LaMotte had opposed Villaraigosa's intervention in district governance. The other candidate in that race is former L.A. teacher and charter school founder Johnathan Williams, who is highly regarded by numerous civic players with the mayor's ear.
The endorsement for the open seat in District 7 was the evening's scheduled subject. The seat will be vacant with the retirement of two-term incumbent Mike Lansing.
The union's action Wednesday means that it approves of all three candidates, and that no one could get the 60% plurality required for official endorsement. All three candidates were working the hallway outside the auditorium at UTLA's midtown headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. In the race are former teacher Jesus M. Escandon, former Principal Neal B. Kleiner and former senior district administrator Richard A. Vladovic.
The open endorsement has the potential to make Villaraigosa the kingmaker.
"The mayor has a lot of leverage," said Escandon, who added that Villaraigosa is "both an inspiration and a hero to me."
Of the three candidates, Kleiner has expressed strong opposition to mayoral control of the school district. That position is popular with many teachers, but it wasn't enough to get to 60% Wednesday night.
Vladovic made the strongest impression on the interview committee, which recommended him. But the entire committee in charge of the interview process supported an open endorsement. And in the delegates' gathering, Vladovic's candidacy sparked memories for some of when he onceapproved the unpopular transfer of a teacher.
The mayor's office declined to comment on UTLA's actions.
Over the weekend Villaraigosa got one step closer to a more compliant school board with the withdrawal of three-term incumbent David Tokofsky, a vociferous opponent of the mayor's bid for control. Union leaders recently have been cool to Tokofsky while working to maintain an alliance with Villaraigosa, but the rank-and-file House members might well have endorsed Tokofsky, a former teacher, as they have in the past.
Tokofsky's withdrawal left only Yolie Flores Aguilar, the executive director of the L.A. County Children's Planning Council, in the race. But it also reopened the filing period for one week. Four potential aspirants have signed up, but have only until week's end to gather 500 valid petition signatures. Tokofsky's District 5 stretches from Los Feliz and Eagle Rock to the cities of Southeast L.A. County.