On its face, the election this week of a Los Angeles fifth-grade teacher to the Board of Education was a stunner. Monica Ratliff’s low-budget effort included her boyfriend, a film school instructor, as her campaign manager. She had no paid staff and no meaningful help from her own politically active teachers union.
Her strategy to achieve some name recognition was to mail out refrigerator magnets, which cost $5,000 in scarce campaign funds. Ten to 20 faithful volunteers knocked on doors every weekend.
Her election night party? She jammed some 10 people into her one-bedroom apartment and then shooed them out at 11 p.m. — before the results were in — because she had to get up early to teach on Wednesday.
Her opponent, Antonio Sanchez, meanwhile, had more than $2.2 million spent on his behalf and an aggressive ground campaign of union volunteers and paid canvassers. He was endorsed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform, which received major donations from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, among others.
Political observers shook their heads Wednesday as they tried to make sense of it all.
Ratliff, 43, had the lead from the get-go Tuesday, ending up with about 52% of the votes, or 20,243 to Sanchez’s 18,779.
“This is a huge upset,” said Charles Kerchner, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies labor and education politics. “Overcoming financial odds of this size … suggests a big difference in the allure of the candidates and the ability to make big money unattractive.”
Ratliff echoed that view.
“This is a testament to the voters,” she said just before the start of class Wednesday at San Pedro Elementary south of downtown. “Voters put their belief in skills and expertise.... It sends the clear message that school board seats are not for sale.”
The teachers union endorsed both candidates in the East Valley race, even though Ratliff is a highly regarded teacher and union leader at her school. The neutrality of United Teachers Los Angeles was a huge advantage to Sanchez because it cut off Ratliff from her best hope of major support.
The L.A. County Federation of Labor jumped in strongly for Sanchez, as did the Service Employees International Union. Local 99 of SEIU, which spent about $400,000 on his behalf, sent out 90 canvassers who talked to more than 21,000 households about Sanchez.
In the end there were various factors contributing to the outcome. Sanchez’s base, for example, was in the low-turnout city of San Fernando, which lacked any higher interest races.
“When that few people show up to an election, almost anything can happen,” Sanchez campaign consultant Mike Shimpoc said.
Turnout was comparatively strong in Ratliff’s environs of Sunland and Tujunga, according to her team.
District 6 was set up to elect a Latino, but among likely voters, Latinos don’t hold a majority, consultants said. Ratliff replaces Nury Martinez, who is running for the L.A. City Council.
Using her $52,000 in contributions strategically, Ratliff appealed to targeted groups. She touted the endorsement of Republican county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, for example, in a mailer to Republicans. Latino voters learned, in another letter, that she won a college scholarship available only to Latinos. (Ratliff has a Latino parent.)
Ratliff benefited, too, from her ballot designation: fifth-grade teacher. She also succeeded in winning endorsements from Los Angeles’ two major newspapers and from educators as well.
A campaign consultant, Fred Huebscher, packaged the magnets — which featured a ruler and a conversion table for recipes — in an oversized envelope. He wanted people to remember Ratliff’s name, recall that she is a teacher and make sure Latinos recognized her ethnicity. There was an accent over the o in Monica.
On Wednesday, Ratliff returned to her classroom, where she continued to read “Holes” to her students and worked on algebraic formulas. She skipped lunch to meet two journalists, but insisted that no students be photographed — she hadn’t told them about her candidacy.
A colleague, Ruby Chavez, echoed feelings of some shock and much pride at the school over the election results.
To help the principal, Ratliff had volunteered to take on a difficult assignment next year — a combination class with fourth- and fifth-grade students. But in July, she’ll take on instead the challenge of being one of seven board members during a time of change in the nation’s second-largest school district.
She’ll help oversee a new evaluation system that will, for the first time, use student standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. Charter schools are battling the district for classroom space and her former union is fighting for job restorations.
Near her classroom door is a poster of a ball and a basketball hoop. It states: “You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Ratliff took a shot. And she made it.