The last time we looked, positions on the Pasadena City Council and Board of Education were nonpartisan. The idea, at least in theory, is to keep the sometimes dirty world of party politics out of decision-making on what most people have come to accept as universally important issues — like keeping everyone in the community physically secure, a primary job of the council, and educating our children, the single-most important duty of every school board member.
This nonpartisan system has worked pretty well, although both the council and Board of Education have been dominated over the past few decades by Democrats. The truth is, though, party affiliation for most local officeholders has never really been an issue, unless, of course, someone brought it up, which has rarely happened.
The school board has been no different than the City Council inasmuch as party politics have played little if any role in how people perceive what they do. That is, until now.
In the race for newly created District 3 on the Board of Education, recently formed under provisions of voter-approved Measure A, some onetime backers of Tyron Hampton, who faces off against Ruben Hueso in the April 16 runoff election, say they are withdrawing their support. And why is that? Hampton is a Republican, and apparently having an African-American Republican on the school board is unthinkable, no matter how well he knows the district or how sincere his desire to improve it.
In the primary, Hampton, a local contractor who, according to his Web site, graduated from Cal Poly Pomona, raised only a few hundred dollars, with one $100 contribution coming from sitting Board President Renatta Cooper, the board’s only African-American member and, incidentally, a Democrat.
On the other hand, Hueso, a teacher with children attending public schools, lists a number of major out-of-town donors to his campaign. Although the district, which was carved out of some of Pasadena’s poorest neighborhoods and includes most of Northwest Pasadena, Hueso has collected more than $30,000 — $1,000 from the California Real Estate Political Action Committee, $1,000 from the local and ostensibly nonpartisan political action group ACT, and $14,000 from the campaigns of Democratic state Sen. Kevin DeLeon of Los Angeles and Assemblyman Ben Hueso, Ruben’s brother, from Encinitas. Hueso’s brother contributed $11,000 from his 2012 re-election campaign, according to the latest financial records filed with the Pasadena City Clerk’s Office. DeLeon gave from his 2018 Assembly campaign fund. Former state Assembly Speaker Fabio Nuñez, also from San Diego and running for state Attorney General in 2014, gave Hueso $5,000 with funds from that upcoming campaign. One of Hueso’s local supporters is Pasadena Board of Education member Ed Honowitz, who gave $250.
Although Cooper still supports Hampton, others who have asked not to be named for this story said they cannot do the same after learning that previously unknown fact about the candidate’s party affiliation.
In May, voters approved Measure A, which did away with the PUSD’s former at-large voting system in favor of districts. The structure is similar to the one employed by the City Council, with seven separate districts, each consisting of roughly 29,000 people. The goal was to increase voting and office-holding opportunities for members of minority groups.
In the March 5 election, Hueso came out on top in a field of three candidates, which included foster mother Diedre Duncan, who reported no contributions but still managed to capture enough votes to keep Hueso from taking the 50 percent plus one vote needed to win outright, forcing a runoff with Hampton.
No one faults Hueso for going to his family and friends for money, even if those folks are members of the Legislature and not from Pasadena. We are also concerned about the perceived need for all African-American officeholders to be Democrats. But we have to wonder if members of the task force that created these districts last year could have foreseen such developments in which party-driven ward politics and well-funded forces from outside the community could play such major roles in securing a seat on the local school board.
Actually, if they didn’t know, they should have. One of the few locally prominent people to object to Measure A was former Board member Bill Bibbiani — a Republican and former top PUSD district administrator whose job over 30 years with the district consisted, in part, of racially integrating Pasadena schools — who told them such things were likely to occur.
Actually, Bibbiani wrote in a column for this newspaper, Measure A’s “only guaranteed effect will be to significantly reduce the voting rights of all voters and blocs thereof, wherever they live.”
Under the at-large system, citizens could vote for or against each of the board members who were up for re-election every two years. But under Measure A, “voters will be limited to voting for one board member only every four years — a single member from a single sub-district whose boundaries have been drawn in large part based on a committee’s perception of its overall racial/ethnic characteristics. … Measure A will result in racially oriented, ward-based ‘what’s in it for me’ politics and politicians.”
Further, Bibbiani observed, when you make it inexpensive to campaign, “you may get ‘local’ candidates who run merely to win the one real perk enjoyed by the school board members, a comprehensive family health insurance program! Or, outside political groups could try to ‘buy’ a seat on the cheap!”
Given all that’s occurred in the race for District 3, it appears some of Bibbiani’s predictions are materializing in both campaigns, raising not so much the question of what’s in it for them, but what’s in it for us when one of these two men eventually takes office.