Running in place
School board elections can be neither fair nor racially inclusive without campaign financing limits
A friend took me to task over a recent editorial about Tuesday’s runoff election between Tyron Hampton and Ruben Hueso for the new District 3 seat on the Pasadena Board of Education.
In that piece, I pointed out that both candidates, running for a position that is supposed to be nonpartisan, had political party affiliations that some were unaware of.
In the one case, Hampton, who in the primary raised only a few hundred dollars for a seat representing some of Pasadena’s poorest families, is African American and a Republican, apparently incomparable terms in the minds of many, and unworthy of their support.
In the other case, Hueso has raised more than $30,000 in a bid to represent this sub-district of the Pasadena Unified School District containing less than 30,000 people, much of that money coming from big-name Democrats, among them state Sen. Kevin DeLeon of Los Angeles, former Speaker the Assembly Fabio Nuñez of San Diego, and former Assemblyman, now state Sen. Ben Hueso, Ruben’s brother, also of San Diego. These three men alone have provided more than two-thirds of Hueso’s funding — all of it coming from his brother’s past campaign fund and two accounts already set up by the others for runs at other offices.
My friend, who is Latina and backs Hueso, questioned my fairness in drawing comparisons to the two candidates. “Race plays a lot in these races, whether we like it or not. You seem to believe the opposite,” she wrote.
For the record, I do not believe the opposite. Race — with apparently too little consideration of economic class — was the very basis for holding this election. Last May, voters, acting on the recommendation of a special task force, split PUSD into seven separate districts. The idea was to increase office-holding opportunities for minority candidates, who, theoretically, would not have to raise large sums to win a board seat.
That was the idea. Unfortunately, the reality is on March 5 three white incumbents, two of them extremely well-funded, easily won re-election, trouncing their minority opponents. And in this last remaining race between Hueso and Hampton, the candidate with the most money will likely win as well.
Am I being unfair in pointing out these things, and the fact that the plans of those who turned an at-large voting system into a supposedly more racially inclusive district-only system seem to have backfired?
I’m sorry for raining on anyone’s parade, but just look at what’s happened. The seven-member school board, which, after Tuesday, will have one Latino or no Latinos and two African Americans, will not have really changed that much at all. What’s more, that person will be representative of only one-seventh of the district while trying to deal with the six other members, all of them previously elected in the at-large system; a board that comes complete with its own cliques and group quirks in terms of deciding issues affecting all of PUSD, which has a 61 percent Latino student population, not just their new districts.
As for money winning elections, let’s turn to financial statements kept by the City Clerk’s Office. In the District 1 race between incumbent Kim Kenne and Dean Cooper, Kenne, who is white, took in 10 times the amount of money raised by Cooper, who is African American, collecting more than $21,000 in contributions. In District 5, incumbent Elizabeth Pomeroy received more than $14,000 in contributions, nearly five times the amount raised by her opponent, Stella Murga, who is Latina. The only race in which contributions were close was in largely white and affluent District 7, in which winning incumbent Scott Phelps, who is white, raked in more than $6,000 compared to the nearly $10,000 taken in by his opponent, Luis Ayala, who is Latino. Two other candidates in the District 3 race — an African-American woman and a Latino — did not raise enough to report. Hampton reported receiving $200, but later picked up $5,000 more, $3,000 of that amount coming from Kenne.
What Hueso’s and the other well-endowed campaigns have shown is money — much more than race — decides elections. Although voters in 2006 approved Measure B, which restricts contributions city officeholders can accept from people with business pending before the city, the measure includes no provisions on campaign contribution limits. Nor does it apply to school board elections. What these most recent elections tell us is that, without some type of limits on contributions, no PUSD election can ever be truly fair or inclusive.
So, who’s going to win Tuesday? Hampton’s only recently clued into the fact that he has to actually campaign to win, and you can’t campaign without money. If the money raised by both men is any indication, Hueso should be victorious. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, considering Hueso’s put two kids through the local public school system and spent more than two decades teaching in public school. We just wish he would have proven to be the exception to the rule that the candidate with the most money usually wins.