Progressive union activist wins city-wide election for Community College Board of Trustees
by Jim Smith
(Gloria Romero, an activist in the Chicano community and the California Faculty Association and David Kessler competed in a runoff election after the following story was written. The L.A. County Federation of Labor leadership proposed to it's delegates meeting that Kessler be endorsed. That recommendation was defeated, a rare occurrence in the tightly controlled organization. A motion was then made that Romero be endorsed. It passed. It was the first time in the history of the county AFL-CIO council that the local union delegates had endorsed a candidate over the objections of the leadership.)
A Latino labor and community activist, an attorney with a prominent downtown law firm, and a candidate with strong support from the Gay and Lesbian community are front runners among eight candidates in a hot contest for Seat #1 on the Community College Board of Trustees.
With little media attention, candidates are relying on direct mail and support from organizations and constituencies to get their names in front of the voters. A typical campaigning day for most candidates means driving miles from one sparsely attended election forum to another. Many students are as apathetic as the general public, seeing themselves as just "passing through" the community college on their way to a four year university.
In addition to overcoming voter apathy, candidates face the daunting task of attempting to reach the 1.8 million eligible voters scattered over 800 square miles. Elections for the community college board are the only at-large elections still held in Los Angeles. Both the city council and the school board have switched in recent years to more manageable district elections.
Trustees oversee a $371 million annual budget and have significant power over the 100,000 students, 2,000 staff and 4,000 instructors in the nine college system. Issues in the campaign include lack of funding from Sacramento, low pay for instructors, not enough classes for students, increased fees, inadequate equipment and buildings at many campuses and representation of the growing Latino population.
College professor Gloria Romero says the current board is a big part of the problem. "There are an abundance of lawyers, not teachers, on the Board. We have to turn it around," Romero told about 40 students, staff and instructors attending a Harbor College candidates forum, March 28 that "the colleges need high tech but often don't even have low tech. In some classes, students have to sit on the floor because there aren't enough chairs to go around," claims Romero.
Romero, who has the backing of a number of Latino political leaders, is an advocate of election by districts. Money and lack of representation are big problems made worse by at-large elections. "The Board does not reflect the student population," say Romero. While 40 percent of the students are Latino, only one of seven trustees, David Lopez Lee, is Latino. Romero says that with the at-large system, "the person with the most money can buy the election."
The person with the most money is Amanda Susskind. While other candidates peddle one-page campaign flyers, Susskind sports a glossy, full-color booklet. She says her experience as an attorney who has represented schools and public agencies would be an asset in fighting for more money for the community colleges. Not mentioned in her eight-page brochure is the name of her current employer, the law firm of Richards, Watson & Gershon. Its reputation for playing hard-ball on management's behalf during union negotiations has been responsible in part for her lack of labor support.
Susskind leads the field in campaign financing by virtue of a $40,000 loan she had to her own campaign, according to Registrar of Voters reports. David Kessler is close behind, having loaned himself $30,000. Romero leads in actual contributions from other people, having taken in nearly $20,000 mainly from Latino political leaders. In addition, she loaned herself $12,500.
All of the front running candidates are paying to have their names included on "slate" mailers that bombard voters in the final days of the election. For the privilege of being included on a list with a name like "Voters Information Guide" community college candidates ante up anywhere from $3,000 to $13,000. Kessler, a liberal democrat, is even covering his bets by appearing on the "Citizens for Republican Values" slate card.
Labor's support, at least officially, is going to County Probation Officers Union President Richard Shumsky, a candidate who has not hit the traditional campaign trail. He won the AFL-CIO's endorsement over the strenuous objections of several teachers unions. Much of Shumsky's $9,100 campaign chest has come from police unions' political action committees.
If sincerity, instead of money, could buy the election the easy winner would be David Kessler. The founder of Project Angel Food, an organization that delivers meals to the homebound, Kessler says he is indebted to the community college system for his education and is dedicated to its improvement. He identifies himself as a member of the Gay and Lesbian Community but says he can represent all segments of the district.
Like Romero, Kessler is critical of the current Board, particularly its real estate transactions. In 1990, the Board bought an 11-story building at 4050 Wilshire Blvd. for $12.5 million, without investigating problems with asbestos and earthquake reinforcement. Today, the never-occupied building is vacant, for sale and surrounded by a chain-link fence. About the same time, the Board spent $571,000 investigating, and rejecting, the possibility of building a headquarters at Los Angeles Community College.
In 1993, the Board voted to sign a 12-year lease on a nine-story building in downtown Los Angeles. Following two years of free rent, payments will rise until they reach $5.6 million in the 12th year of the lease. "The Trustees have moved into a Taj Mahal while students at East L.A. College are using 50-year old temporary buildings for classrooms," says Kessler.
Two other candidates who describe themselves as educators, Frankie Curry and Reyanldo Garay, are also running hard for a seat on the Board.
Patricia Blanco, a nursing program student at Harbor College, told candidates during a question and answer period that she wanted someone elected who will help the students get better quality education. Predictable, nearly all the candidates rose to say she could count on them.
A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles View
Copyright by Jim Smith