California voters have seen a barrage of sunny television ads in recent weeks touting former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's record on finances, crime and education, aired by Families & Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor 2018.
But the group is, in fact, largely funded by a handful of wealthy charter school supporters. Together they have spent $13.7 million in less than a month to boost Villaraigosa's chances in the June 5 primary — at a time when his fundraising and poll numbers are lagging. Reed Hastings, the founder of Netflix, jump-started the group with a $7-million check, by far the largest donation to support any candidate in the election.
Their efforts are part of a broader proxy war among Democrats between teachers unions — longtime stalwarts of the party — and those who argue that the groups have failed low-income and minority schoolchildren.
Gary Borden, executive director of the California Charter Schools Assn. Advocates, which is behind the pro-Villaraigosa independent expenditure group, said it is backing Villaraigosa for his history of challenging the status quo in education as mayor of Los Angeles. While he led the city, he tried to take over its schools and blasted the influence of the teachers union in Los Angeles.
"He didn't need to do the things he did," Borden said. "Some of this goes back historically, just to how strong Antonio has been on public education and our level of confidence that that's how he will be as governor."
His group's advocacy effort has raised more than $17.1 million from 14 donors for the Families & Teachers independent expenditure committee, according to campaign finance documents filed with the secretary of state's office. Such groups cannot legally coordinate with campaigns, but can accept unlimited donations.
After Hastings, the biggest contributors are philanthropist Eli Broad and and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who each donated $2.5 million, and hedge fund manager Bill Oberndorf, who contributed $2 million.
Oberndorf is a major donor to Republican candidates and causes, and replaced Betsy DeVos as chairman of the American Federation for Children after President Trump nominated DeVos to be his education secretary.
"I have become involved in this race to ensure that low-income and minority children in our state have the same education options most Californians already enjoy who live in a community with high-quality public schools or send their children to private schools," Oberndorf said, adding that though he is a life-long Republican, he does not believe a GOP gubernatorial candidate can win in the general election. "Fortunately, in Antonio Villaraigosa all Californians — Democrats, Republicans and Independents — have a candidate who will represent all of our interests including the most educationally underserved children in our state."
Broad, Hastings and Bloomberg did not respond to requests for comment.
A spokesman for Villaraigosa demurred when asked about the charter school effort launched to support the candidate.
"Mayor Villaraigosa's focus is how we unite Californians to lift more families into the middle class — and keep them there," spokesman Luis Vizcaino said. "This campaign isn't going to be distracted from that mission by outside efforts for us, or against us."
A spokesman for Villaraigosa's main Democratic rival and front-runner in the race, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, sought to tie Villaraigosa's charter school backers to President Trump's administration, notably DeVos, a billionaire who stumbled badly during her confirmation hearings, has no previous experience in government or public education and has sought to allow public money to flow to private, religious schools.
Newsom "is not a rubber stamp for any group, especially those who align themselves with Betsy DeVos. And unlike Antonio Villaraigosa, he would never brag about waging 'a holy jihad' on public educators," said Newsom campaign manager Addisu Demissie, referring to a statement Villaraigosa made to The Times' editorial board about the city's teachers union as he sought to take control of the city's school district.
The effort by the charter school supporters is part of a broader movement aiming to overhaul how public schools are run. Advocates for charter schools have frequently clashed with teachers unions over issues including merit pay, seniority, the use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers and school choice.
While many education decisions are made at the local school district level, the state has notable power over some of these issues. The governor has significant influence through the bully pulpit, because of the ability to make appointments to the state Board of Education and to affect the legislative process. And many expect California's next governor to play a significant role on policy that could reshape the state's public schools.
"We have something of a wild, wild west environment," said John Rogers, director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. "There probably are going to need to be new laws [regulating charter school authorization and oversight]. It's not going to be clear to everyone as we move forward — the question is how are these new laws going to be written and who is going to have sway over them."
Education is one of the few areas where Villaraigosa and Newsom disagree.
The former big-city mayors of Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, took divergent paths on the issue.
When Newsom first ran for mayor, he touted charter schools as places "to explore new and better ways of reaching and educating our youth." But as he ran for governor, he told the California Teachers Assn. that he did not believe the number of charter schools in the state should increase, according to the Sacramento Bee. A spokesman told the paper that Newsom believed that no more should be authorized until there is greater state oversight.
Villaraigosa started his career as a union organizer, and labor buttressed his campaigns, donating millions of dollars and dispatching members to turn out voters. But as mayor, he became the most prominent Democrat in California to criticize teachers groups, blasting Los Angeles' union as "the largest obstacle to creating quality schools."
He unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, arguing that city schools needed to be dramatically overhauled because they were failing the neediest students. He eventually took over more than a dozen struggling campuses through a nonprofit he founded.
Villlaraigosa's crusade continued after leaving office. He sided with students in a lawsuit that argued that their state constitutional rights were violated by laws regulating teacher layoffs, firings and tenure. The students initially triumphed, but the decision was later overturned.
Borden said his group grew alarmed by reports of Newsom supporting caps on the number of charter schools in the state, which currently number 1,275 and serve about 630,000 students.
"We would not be supportive of anyone who just blanketly opposes something that is clearly working on behalf of the kids of California," he said.
Yet the charter group has not focused solely on Newsom. The bulk of their television ads have promoted Villaraigosa, while a smaller number have dinged GOP candidate John Cox, who polls show is Villaraigosa's main competition for the second spot in the June top-two primary.
The anti-Cox ad paints the wealthy Rancho Santa Fe businessman as a Chicago carpetbagger who failed at multiple efforts to run for elected office in Illinois, and to put initiatives on the ballot in California. Cox is effectively self-funding his campaign, having donated $4 million to date.
Cox's campaign manager, Tim Rosales, criticized the effort.
"If they are willing to attack someone with a 30-year history of supporting charter schools and school choice, I don't know why any candidate — Republican or Democrat — would ever stick their neck out for these people again," he said.
The charter school backers also released an ad that criticizes Newsom, though not by name. The ad says as violent crime went up in San Francisco, Villaraigosa put more police officers on the streets of Los Angeles, leading to a sharp reduction in crime.
Newsom is the leader in fundraising, but he also has the support of well-funded independent expenditure groups, notably a labor committee that has raised $3.8 million.
He has been endorsed by the California Teachers Assn., one of the most potent forces in California politics. The union contributed $1 million to another pro-Newsom independent expenditure committee on Monday, and sent mailers to California voters last week saying that billionaires are trying to "buy the election" for Villaraigosa and Marshall Tuck, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, "to privatize California schools and take away the rights of educators and students."
Eric Heins, the president of the CTA, declined to say how much the union would spend boosting Newsom. But he pointed to Villaraigosa's attempt to take over Los Angeles' schools while mayor, as well as the billionaires backing his bid to explain why they are supporting Newsom.
"You can tell who bought Antonio by where his money is coming from," Heins said. "These are not people who believe in public education. They believe in vouchers and unregulated charters. These are policies that are failing our students."
The California Federation of Teachers also contributed $125,000 to a pro-Newsom group on Monday.
The fight between the teachers' unions and the education reform movement comes at a time of changing political dynamics for both groups.
The CTA has long been one of the most potent forces in California, a kingmaker in Democratic politics.It spent more than $53 million to stymie a series of ballot measures proposed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, leading to an electoral rebuke that reshaped his governorship. But the union faces challenges, notably a Supreme Court decision expected in June that could stop public employee unions in California and several other states from collecting dues from everyone they represent.
Meanwhile, charter school backers have been increasingly active in California, spending tens of millions of dollars on elections in recent years, with varying levels of success.
In 2014, they spent more than $10 million in an unsuccessful effort to elect Tuck, a Democratic former charter school leader who is close with Villaraigosa, as the state's schools chief. The CTA spent $12 million to defeat him.
But last year, they won their first-ever majority on the board that oversees Los Angeles' sprawling school system.
National politics are also a factor. Education reformers were ascendant during the Obama administration, when some prominent Democratic leaders publicly questioned teachers unions' priorities. But now they are being linked to the Trump administration, notably DeVos — anathema in Democratic circles.
Meanwhile in California, Gov. Jerry Brown's greatest focus on education was changing the school funding formula in a way that sent more K-12 dollars to disadvantaged communities. But he largely avoided wading into the debate between teachers unions and charter school backers, in part to avoid splintering the coalition that backed his school funding overhaul.
The next governor will probably have to more forcefully address the schism between unions and those opposed to their powers.
"The money is lining up the way it is because the choice [for governor] moving forward is likely to be more consequential," UCLA's Rogers said.
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4:15 p.m. Wednesday: This article was updated to add a comment from Bill Oberndorf.
5:25 p.m. Tuesday: This article was updated to reflect additional donations and spending by an independent expenditure committee.
3:30 p.m. Tuesday: This article was updated to reflect additional donations and donors to multiple independent expenditure campaigns.
10:21 p.m. Monday: This article was updated to reflect additional donations to the independent expenditure campaign.