White guy plays race card,

defeats Latina opponent for school board

by Jim Smith

(David Tokofsky won by a very narrow margin over Lucia Rivera. His mailer attacking "illegal aliens" may well have made the difference.)

Will Latino political office seekers suffer fallout from the passage of Proposition 187? That question may be answered when the votes are counted in the election for Los Angeles School Board, District #5.

The incumbent, Leticia Quezada, is stepping down after two terms. Meanwhile, the district boundaries have been extended from East L.A. to the northeast San Fernando Valley, causing the percentage of registered voters who are Latino to drop from over 80 per cent to 49 per cent. The percentage of Latino students in the district is an overwhelming 87 percent.

Most Eastside politicians including L.A. City Council member Richard Alatorre and County Supervisor Gloria Molina, fearful of losing one of two Latino seats on the Board of Education, are closing ranks behind Lucia Rivera, a parent leader and political novice.

The formerly safe Latino district may well be up for grabs. If Rivera is defeated it will probably be by a white teacher activist, David Tokofsky, whose campaign has received more than $30,000 from United Teachers of Los Angeles. Tokofsky rejects the implication that the seat should be held by a Latino. "I speak fluent Spanish. Better than three of the Latino candidates, including Lucia Rivera," says Tokofsky.

Tonia Reyes Uranga, a candidate for the Long Beach City Council says the backlash from Proposition 187 was a factor in her Feb. 7 election loss. That election, one of the few in which a Latina and a white candidate have run against each other since Proposition 187 passed last November, was itself a rerun of a disputed vote count the previous June. "In the first election, race was never mentioned," says Uranga. "After Proposition 187 passed, people began asking me if I had been born here and if my mother spoke English. They asked my position on 187, but they never asked my opponent." Uranga ended up gaining only 43 per cent of the vote in the post-187 election, down from 50 per cent in the first election

Tokofsky and Rivera are running neck-and-neck in fund raising according to documents obtained from the city ethics department. Both candidates reported raising around $60,000 as of March 25, well ahead of the other six candidates. However, the final figures could nearly double since spending during the final week of campaign frenzy will not be reported until after the election.

Lucia Rivera prides herself in her work as a full-time volunteer, and for the past two years, as a paid parent community representative at Eagle Rock High School. "I thought it was time for the point of view of a parent to be represented on the school board."

Rivera says parents, teachers and the community all have to work together, but feels parents have been getting the short end of the stick. "The LEARN program allocates $15,000 for training of teachers and administrators but only $2,000 for training parents," she complains. "Parents have to be involved in the process if we want to have reform."

"I didn't even know this was a Latino seat when I decided to run. I'm running as a parent, regardless of race," says Rivera. Yet, race is being injected into the campaign. A slate mailer called the Voter Information Guide includes an endorsement for David Tokofsky and states "His opponents want to allow illegal aliens to vote in local elections." Tokofsky aid Chuck Bono says the candidate "didn't know about the wording until after it went out. David does not want this to become an issue in the campaign." Tokofsky's official finance report lists $2,850 paid to the Voter Information Guide for inclusion on the mailer.

Tokofsky does want his experience as an award-winning teacher to become an issue. That experience, which includes coaching the school district's first national academic decathlon champions in 1987, makes him better prepared to work for quality education, he says. When Tokofsky was presented with the Christa McAuliffe teaching award by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1991, his response endeared him to many rank-and-file teachers. After Wilson presented the award and while TV cameras were rolling, Tokofsky presented Wilson with a giant "pink slip" in protest of cutbacks in state aid to education.

Tokofsky's endorsement by the teachers union was a rank-and-file revolt against a committee recommendation for a dual endorsement of Tokofsky and Rivera. One teacher who is critical of Tokofsky says he stampeded the endorsement, even bringing his high school class to the meeting of the union's House of Representatives. Tokofsky claims his students were present for an event unrelated to his endorsement.

Since there have been no polls during the campaign, candidate strength is difficult to judge. A June 6 runoff is likely because there are so many candidates in the field. Two others who may draw significant numbers of votes, but from different ends of the political spectrum, are Ron Rodriguez and Kitty Hedrick.

Rodriguez, a grassroots activist and co-founder the parents group Padres Unidos, is a fifth grade teacher in Boyle Heights. He is well-known in the community for a lawsuit he filed in 1982 that ten years later became a landmark court decision (Rodriguez vs. LAUSD) mandating school districts to equalize funding between poor and wealthy communities.

Rodriguez blast both Rivera and Tokofsky for being captives of "administrative bureaucracies," Tokofsky by the teachers union and Rivera by the school administrators. "The real issue in this campaign is that these bureaucracies control the district and are blocking quality education," says Rodriguez. Rivera, who received the endorsement of the Associated Administrators, denies she is their tool and points to her endorsements by school cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teaching assistants.

Rodriguez calls from radical decentralization of the district to provide more representation for areas like the San Fernando Valley, which he says is under-represented. "It's impossible for one person to represent half the valley and the east side. There should be at least 15 board members."

Latino politicians made a serious error, he believes, by giving their support to Rivera, who Rodriguez says is "a weak candidate." "It's going to be their fault if Tokofsky wins."

Voters who are against bilingual education, "illegal aliens," and the United Nations have their candidate in Kitty Hedrick, who is running with the support of leaders on the conservative side of the Republican party. Sounding like a right-wing version of Ron Rodriguez, Hedrick says "the educrats are running scared. The old, New Deal coalition combining trade unions and big government that has wreaked havoc on our public schools is finally losing its grip." Hedrick may well draw white voters to the polls who would not vote for a Latino and who believe that Tokofsky is too liberal.


A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles View.

Copyright by Jim Smith