George McKenna and Alex Johnson leading in L.A. Unified race

Vying for an open seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education, George McKenna and Alex Johnson appeared to be headed to a runoff in Tuesday’s primary election. The two were the best funded in a crowded field.

Seven candidates were seeking to fill the final year in the term of Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, who died in December. The 1st District has 74,000-plus students in 92 traditional schools and 37 charter campuses across south and southwest Los Angeles.

The outcome of the special election could affect the direction of the nation’s second-largest school system. The policies of Supt. John Deasy were a frequent target of LaMotte, who, for example, criticized him for replacing instructors at persistently low-performing campuses.


Deasy’s staying power was an undercurrent in this contest, although candidates generally avoided criticizing him.

McKenna, 73, a retired senior district administrator, was solidly ahead early in the evening for a place on the seven-member board.

“I haven’t made a lot of enemies in my career,” McKenna said Tuesday night. “I’ve made a lot of friendships, and my investment in all the children and families and parents is paying off.”

McKenna 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.”

Johnson, 33, the senior education adviser to Los Angeles 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 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. A committee set up by the California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates reported spending nearly $62,000. The charter group also gave $50,000 to the California Black Political Action Committee, which spent $17,000 for Johnson.

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.

For his father, Vincent Sealey, 91, the driving factor was Ridley-Thomas.

“I don’t know Johnson, but I know Ridley-Thomas,” he said.

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 Los Angeles. Hudley-Hayes was well behind the two leaders in early returns.

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 with ties to the union: Sherlett Hendy Newbill, Rachel Johnson and Hattie McFrazier.

Also on the ballot was Omarosa Manigault, a substitute teacher and assistant pastor, known for a run on a reality TV show.