OP-ED by Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/1pujSor
A lone voter fills out his ballot in the June 3 election at the International City Masonic Temple in Long Beach. (Christina House / For The Times)
On Aug. 12, voters in Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education District 1 will choose between Alex Johnson and George McKenna. The winner will join the LAUSD's seven-member board and will represent some of the region's poorest communities, desperately in need of quality schools. The consequences are immense, and yet the conventional wisdom is that of the 330,000 or so registered voters in the district, about 35,000 will cast ballots. In the June primary, 44,442 people voted, but a crowded ballot helped draw voters to the polls. This election features no such lures.
The bottom line? The next board member for the district will represent roughly 1 million people on questions essential to the future of this region, and yet probably will have garnered the support of only about 20,000 people.
Some insist that turnout doesn't really matter because it rarely determines the result. Others argue that special interests have greater sway in low-turnout elections because motivated groups show up while less-driven voters stay home. That's true, though no election is immune from the power of special interests.
What I find most troubling about low turnout , however, is not so much that it decides outcomes or favors interests: It's that it suggests the public is drifting away from democracy itself — that voters are disillusioned and don't see much point in exercising their right to choose their representatives.
That's why the prospect of a no-show school board election next month is especially disturbing. This race does matter, residents of this district need to engage in the future of their schools, and they have a real choice.
Residents of this district need to engage in the future of their schools, and they have a real choice. -
Of the two, McKenna, 73, has the clear edge in experience, having served for nearly half a century as a teacher, principal, administrator and superintendent. Johnson, 33, counters with energy and a commitment to education reform honed in his work for the New York City school system and as education aide to Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. When we spoke last week, Johnson stressed his ability to infuse new ideas into a system bogged down in failed ones.
Each has the support of iconic figures in Los Angeles' African American community. Johnson's principal backer is Ridley-Thomas; City Council President Herb Wesson and former Congresswoman Diane Watson are supporters too. McKenna is endorsed by Reps. Karen Bass and Maxine Waters and the Los Angeles Sentinel, among others.
Voters sometimes lose interest when a campaign has a sure winner, but that's not the case here. McKenna won the first round handily, but Johnson is coming on fast, bolstered by a large advantage in fundraising and the support of independent committees, including the newly formed Great Public Schools Los Angeles Political Action Committee. McKenna, meanwhile, is endorsed by United Teachers Los Angeles, which has spent $75,000 on his behalf and has a track record of turning out its members.
Moreover, both candidates have reasons to care about turnout. When he was a school principal, McKenna used to demand that his students fill out a voter registration card as part of their graduation ceremony (those who were too young were instructed to mail them in on their 18th birthdays). Why people don't vote, he told me last week, "is a puzzlement to me." Johnson, meanwhile, needs to expand his base to counter McKenna's primary victory.
And yet, the campaign's final weeks have been dominated by muck, not summons to responsibility or prospects of change. McKenna supporters accuse Johnson of fronting for Ridley-Thomas, whom they regard as a meddlesome puppeteer. Johnson supporters sent out a scurrilous piece of mail that questioned McKenna's integrity based on ripping newspaper quotes wildly out of context (the mailer is footnoted, and when I looked up the original articles, I found myself more and more impressed by McKenna, probably not what Johnson had in mind). McKenna's camp called the mail "shameful."
On top of that, neither Johnson nor McKenna has done much to explain how he would affect the balance of the current board, which today is divided between members who generally side with the teachers union and those more inclined to buck it. My hunch there is that Johnson would be the more forceful agent of reform, but that's based more on who's backing him than on anything he's said.
Voters in the 1st District can choose between the energy of youth and the wisdom of experience. They can judge these candidates by who supports them and what they'd bring to the job. But most voters won't bother. And for those eager to exercise their franchise, election officials have erected one last obstacle: Election day for the school board is also the first day of school.