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Column: Why a lifelong Democrat and education reformer is supporting Larry Elder for governor

Former California state Sen. Gloria Romero
Former state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat, has cut commercials for the gubernatorial campaign of radio talk show host Larry Elder. She believes he offers the best chance at public school reform.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Gloria Romero, lifelong Democrat, really doesn’t care who she ticks off.

In a state where the Democratic Party is deeply entwined with teachers unions, the former California state senator has been a relentless advocate for school choice.

She believes the California Teachers Assn. and United Teachers Los Angeles are great for teachers and terrible for students, most of whom are Black and Latino.

It is no coincidence, she says, that more than 70% of California prison inmates, most of whom are also Black and Latino, lack high school diplomas.

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“My mantra is, ‘If we don’t educate, we will incarcerate,’” she told me Monday when we met to talk about the recall of California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

During her career in Sacramento, she championed public school reform, writing a statewide “parent trigger law” that allowed parents of children in low-performing schools to demand changes in school administration and another law that allowed students from the state’s lowest-performing schools to apply to better ones regardless of boundary lines.

“This law I wrote in 2010, basically said we can identify the 1,000 lowest-performing schools in California and say ya basta, we’re out of here.”

For the record, I applaud and respect her devotion to improving public education; I disagree with her take on unions and her proposed solutions.

Romero, 66, said she disagrees with just about everything that radio talk show host Larry Elder, the apparent Republican front-runner, stands for.

But she is so disillusioned with Newsom and other California Democrats who have blocked efforts to reform public education that she has become an enthusiastic Elder supporter and has starred in commercials in English and Spanish endorsing his quest for governor.

“The first thing was the arrogance of the ruling classes — rules for thee, but not for me,” she told me when we met at the home of her daughter, Soledad Ursua, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council. “The French Laundry thing was SO symbolic. “

She doesn’t mind that Newsom schools his children privately. “But what about the rest of us?” she said. “Why can’t we have opportunity scholarships to go to the school of our choice?”

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Still, she knows that supporting Elder is, as she put it, “a roll of the dice.”

“I recognize an opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into a system that has violated our educational rights and deprived us of the American Dream.”

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Romero grew up poor in Barstow, at the end of a road so sandy, her father had to carry a shovel in his car in case they got stuck.

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As Latinos, she said, “we were treated crappy.” But, as her father told her: “We pay taxes, too.”

He got neighbors to sign a petition demanding the road be paved.

She felt awe when a neighbor’s son became a teacher. “I remember going to his house to bow down, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to be a teacher!’”

Her family had only a Bible and a few old books that she read and reread, but still, she said, “I got the message that education is the key to the American dream. It’s what lifts you out of poverty. It’s transformation. It will change your life.”

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In high school, she heard kids talking about college applications. When she asked her counselor for one, she said: “He said it wouldn’t be necessary.” Enraged, she demanded one, which, she said, he threw at her.

She attended Barstow Community College, transferred to Long Beach State and earned her doctorate in psychology at UC Riverside.

If you know anything about California politics, you may know the rest: After a university teaching career, she ran for the California Assembly, then the state Senate, eventually becoming the Senate’s first female Democratic majority leader, and termed out in 2010. All along, she focused on education reform — in public schools and prisons — and alienated plenty of colleagues all along the way.

She says she used to walk around the Capitol with a list of failing public schools, rolled up like a diploma that she would unscroll in meetings. A couple of times, around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, she penned opinion pieces noting that among California’s failing schools, six were named after King, three after Rosa Parks and five after Cesar Chavez.

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“Those revered leaders would not stand for their names affixed to schools that send more kids to prison than college,” she wrote in the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010. “I will not stand for it either.”

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The current recall is one in a long line of tried-and-true Republican maneuvers —and frankly an abuse of democracy — in a state where the party is vastly outnumbered by Democrats and independents.

But it’s a mistake to pretend that voter disaffection does not cross party lines.

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In an Emerson College/Nexstar poll conducted on July 31 and Aug. 1, 54% of likely Latino voters said they supported the recall, a wake-up call if ever there was one to complacent Democrats.

I don’t understand why a viable Democratic candidate was not put forward for the recall ballot’s Question 2, which asks voters to pick a successor should Newsom lose.

For Romero, though, it was “classic Democratic Party strategy. You basically shut down the opposition no matter how crappy your candidate is,” she said. “I think it’s a real mistake.”

In fact, she said, she wishes that Democrats had offered up the state’s treasurer, Fiona Ma, controller Betty Yee or even former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whom she supported over Newsom in 2018 and would have chosen over Elder in a hot second.

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But to deny a Democratic alternative on Question 2 “so they can save the prince of the French Laundry?” she said. “I think the Democratic Party needs to be held accountable.”

What about the concept of party unity? I asked.

“Party unity versus what’s good for California?” she replied. “If I wanted party unity, I would never have gone with Barack Obama.”

In 2007, she became a state co-chair of his first presidential campaign, and belonged to a group called Democrats for Obama. Party officials informed her there was no such thing.

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I hope Newsom is not recalled. Elder would be a disaster for California. But this may be the price the ruling party pays for failing our kids.

@AbcarianLAT


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