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Once-mighty UTLA loses political muscle

Critics portray the Los Angeles teachers union as politically all-powerful, able to swing elections and exert control over the Board of Education in the nation's second-largest school system. But in recent years United Teachers Los Angeles hasn't lived up to that reputation.

It's been eight years since UTLA backing put a candidate on the Board of Education in a race in which another contender also had strong financial support. And this year, the union has quietly given up on reclaiming a majority of allies on the seven-member Board of Education in the March 8 election.

This concession is noteworthy: When union-backed candidates win, especially when they prevail because of union support, UTLA gains a sympathetic ear. And there are implied political consequences for board members who stop listening.

But insiders and civic leaders, both pro- and anti-UTLA, describe the union as an organization that has lost clout at the ballot box as well as in the day-to-day proceedings of the backrooms and the board room.

"When I read 'the powerful teachers union,' I think: What powerful teachers union?" said Becki Robinson, a UTLA vice president from 1996 to 2002 who remained active in the union until her retirement two years ago. "I don't believe that the current UTLA has any political influence in the district at all. It is completely 180 degrees from what it used to be."

Interviews with board members suggest that the empathy and intimidation factor have ebbed.

"There's definitely not a majority of the board that puts UTLA in the middle of every conversation or is concerned about needing to consult with them or get their blessing," said a board member who spoke on condition of anonymity, having no desire to offend even a diminished union. "Most of us roll our eyes when things come up with UTLA because they're less and less influential in the conversations we're having."

Some civic leaders have countered UTLA's influence by raising massive campaign funds for their own competing slates of candidates. But they could harness only modest grassroots, volunteer help compared to the potential army of ground support from thousands of teachers that UTLA commands. And yet UTLA's opponents have frequently prevailed in the wake of union gaffes and strategic errors.

Recently, union officials withdrew support for two candidates after learning about indiscretions in their past that the candidates failed to disclose and that incomplete background checks failed to uncover.

Both of them, Jesus Escandon and John Fernandez, still will appear on the ballot, although Escandon has abandoned his campaign. The union remains active in two contests, supporting incumbent Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and opting this month for retired teacher Bennett Kayser in the race for the one board seat not filled by an incumbent.

Union President A.J. Duffy delivered a less than resounding call to arms.

"We believe there are some reasonable moderates on the board that quite often hold views that we do, but who feel that there is a board majority that is very powerful," Duffy said. "If we could get some other moderates on the board we could influence the current group of moderates."

Barring an upset, the largest bloc on the school board will remain generally allied with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former UTLA organizer who has become a strong critic of the teachers union. He has backed three candidates — considered to be favorites — and helped raise more than $1.5 million for an independent committee working to elect them.

The Villaraigosa-backed board has passed key measures opposed by the teachers union. Early on, it delivered control of Locke High to a charter school organization. Overall, the board has approved dozens of nonunion, startup charters. And last year the school board began allowing outside groups to bid for control of new campuses and low-performing ones as well. The board also has approved a succession of ground-shifting policies affecting teachers' evaluations. And the district recently agreed to weaken long-held "last hired, first fired" safeguards to protect many younger teachers from being laid off due to budget cuts.

As in many school systems, the teachers union was, for years, the most influential political force in L.A. Unified. The union's clout has been based on financial strength and sheer, often impassioned numbers; teachers also appealed successfully to public sympathies.

In 2003, a union-financed campaign unseated board members Caprice Young and Genethia Hayes. They had been leaders among a board majority endorsed by former Mayor Richard Riordan, billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad and their allies.

The new board majority immediately clashed at times with then-Supt. Roy Romer.

"I love the people in the union, but I thought they had undue influence," Romer said. "They have influence through the money they contributed in the board races and the organization they had. During board meetings, I had board members in direct phone or e-mail connection with union members in the audience. I remember going to a labor negotiation and there were two board members sitting on the other side with the labor group. Symbolically, it was startling."

In 2005, a group of longtime insurgents, allied with Duffy, took charge of the union. They intended to mobilize the political force of the union as never before.

It hasn't happened.

One embarrassing incident occurred in the 2006 election to fill a vacated seat. The union had endorsed its own youthful staffer, Christopher Arellano, and launched a campaign that spent more than $100,000. The union later learned about two past theft convictions, missed court appearances and the claim of a master's degree that was, in fact, not yet completed.

The collapse of his campaign opened the door for Monica Garcia, who became — and remains — the first and tightest ally of Villaraigosa.

In 2007, the union reelected LaMotte, but lost three other seats to a Villaraigosa-backed campaign. In that cycle, the union backed one unsuccessful incumbent who was dying of cancer and couldn't mount an energetic campaign. And the leadership resisted efforts to oppose Villaraigosa-financed candidates in two races that political consultants judged winnable. In one of them, the UTLA leadership had helped to nudge a relatively popular incumbent, David Tokofsky, to the sidelines.

"They have this reputation of being like Godzilla, but at times, they're really like The Three Stooges," said Tokofsky, who has nonetheless continued to work with the union during a subsequent career as a consultant.

Union leaders and their supporters insist that UTLA has made crucial contributions to improving schools and retains valuable political clout.

Indeed, no one is ready to write off UTLA's influence. For one thing, key reform initiatives and budget cutting measures must, by law, be negotiated with the union.

"The union's power relationship with the board is not what it used to be," board member Yolie Flores said. "But you can't ignore the union or discount the legitimate power of teachers that it represents. And we're obviously conscious that we can't solve any of this by ourselves."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.

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