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L.A. teachers union withdraws support for two school board candidates

Leaders of the Los Angeles teachers union withdrew their backing of two school board candidates Monday, leaving their political strategy in disarray while boosting the efforts of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to maintain an allied majority on the Board of Education.

Under the union pressure, one candidate abandoned the race while the other vowed to continue.

Jesus Escandon signed a letter dated Saturday saying that he was dropping out effective immediately. John Fernandez has refused to step aside in the only contest without an incumbent, resulting in a union rebuke.

"We will vigorously oppose his candidacy as a matter of principle," A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a Monday statement to union representatives at campuses throughout the nation's second-largest school system.

The union said that both candidates failed to reveal relevant background information in interviews.

Escandon, 43, was convicted of drunk driving and public drunkenness in the 1990s, records show. Fernandez, 61, had a bankruptcy as well as state and federal tax liens, records indicate.

Fernandez said he fulfilled his tax obligations by filing his 2006 return Friday and his 2004 return Monday. In 2001, Fernandez was arrested and jailed for three days after two female companions were suspected of shoplifting, Fernandez said. No prosecution was ever pursued, he added.

The union, said spokeswoman Marla Eby, "would rather lose the campaign than have a candidate who didn't rise to our level of honesty and integrity. This is obviously something we didn't want to happen, especially with two candidates."

UTLA has one remaining endorsed candidate: two-term incumbent Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte in District 1. In every race, the union had chosen a candidate to oppose those favored by Villaraigosa. School board members allied with the mayor to varying degrees occupy four of the seven seats.

The mayor is backing incumbent Richard Vladovic in District 7 against Escandon and Roye Love. He's supporting incumbent Tamar Galatzan in District 3 against Louis Pugliese. Yolie Flores decided not to run again in District 5, where the mayor is supporting Luis Sanchez, chief of staff to board President Monica Garcia, the mayor's closest board ally. The other candidates are Fernandez and Bennett Kayser.

The union has had other setbacks with the March 8 election. It first lost Heather Kolodny in District 3, who changed her mind about running.

A former teacher, Escandon, 43, is a veteran staff member with the California Teachers Assn. and the father of three district students. In 1994 he was convicted of public drunkenness, an arrest that also resulted in a conviction for failure to appear in court. In 1997 he was convicted of driving under the influence and driving without a license.

"Like most people, I've made mistakes in my life," he said in a signed letter to the UTLA board. "I wanted to personally apologize to you and the teachers of L.A. for not sharing this with you earlier."

Escandon's wife, Martha, said Monday that UTLA wrote the letter and pressured her husband all weekend to sign it. At one point, after having agreed, he changed his mind at the urging of his family and called Duffy to tell him, she said. An angry Duffy allegedly warned him to talk to his employer and then hung up.

Fearful for his job, Escandon finally yielded and also agreed not to speak to reporters. His wife added that Escandon is a solid citizen who once worked three jobs so she could earn her undergraduate and master's degrees.

Others urging Escandon to drop out were campaign consultant John Shallman, who is working for UTLA, and former union president John Pérez. Duffy and Pérez could not be reached, but Shallman insisted that there was no coercion.

Fernandez said he may appeal to keep the endorsement to the union's House of Representatives. UTLA's backing typically comes with substantial campaign funding and volunteer support.

As of Friday, Fernandez had reported that he'd raised no money. A campaign on behalf of the mayor's favored candidates has raised more than $1 million.

Fernandez, a retired teacher and longtime Eastside community activist, called the pressure from Duffy "a vicious, racist, cowardly act."

Times staff writer Jason Song and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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