Monday, February 09, 2009


By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer | Los Angeles Newspaper Group

2/9/09 -- After taking an unexpected turn last year, the race to replace Marlene Canter on the Los Angeles school board assumed an unusual dynamic: It became teacher versus teacher.

Two candidates have remained in the contest, following surprise signature- gathering glitches that knocked out a potential front-runner and another candidate in December.

Mike Stryer and Steve Zimmer are now vying to represent diverse, sprawling Board of Education District 4, which runs from Westchester north through the Westside into the southwestern San Fernando Valley, and east into Hollywood.

One of the two - who have much in common, at least on the surface - will take over a board seat that for the past eight years has been held by Canter. Seen as an independent who resisted falling into Los Angeles Unified's persistent factionalism, Canter announced in October that she would not seek a third term.

Both Stryer and Zimmer are white male LAUSD high school instructors and members of powerful United Teachers Los Angeles, a heavy-hitter in district politics. Both men are Democrats and their campaigns are each employing the rhetoric of reform.

The race is just now beginning to heat up, only weeks before the March 3 election. And voters - the few that actually tune in to school board races - are beginning to see that they know little about the contenders.

"Who are these guys? I'm just glad that there's at least two," said Kelly Kane, whose Westchester/Playa del Rey Education Foundation hosted a forum for the candidates last week.

The competitors who were forced out of the race - Ben Austin, a former deputy mayor who heads the Green Dot-affiliated Los Angeles Parents Union, and longtime parent advocate Bill Ring - were better known than Stryer and Zimmer.

"People are just realizing that we have two UTLA candidates that are running against each other. And people are going, `Are the reforms that Marlene started going to survive?"' said Terry Marcellus, who chairs the education committee of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa del Rey. "It is highly unusual."

Indeed, some local observers are casting a worried eye on the race, especially those in Westchester who have appreciated Canter's backing of the Loyola Marymount University Family of Schools, which last year gave five LAUSD campuses increased autonomy.

"The person that is elected in this position really steps in to fill (Canter's) shoes," said Shane Martin, dean of LMU's education school.

"It will be important to look for two themes - how ( Stryer and Zimmer intend) to build upon work that Marlene has done ... and how the candidates differentiate themselves."

Canter, who has not made an endorsement, will today co-host a candidate forum for voters in Woodland Hills; another debate will be in West L.A. on Wednesday.

"I want them to have an internal core so that they can make their own decisions," she said of the two candidates.

Distinctions between Stryer and Zimmer are starting to become more clear.

For one thing, Zimmer, a 16-year teacher and counselor at Marshall High in Los Feliz, has gained the backing of UTLA, which has launched an independent campaign to support him. That's despite the fact that Stryer is a former UTLA co-chair at Fairfax High, where he's taught since 2003.

Both men sought the union's endorsement, but Zimmer has a history of labor-oriented political involvement.

Zimmer is a 38-year-old central Los Angeles-based activist and organizer who has worked on local political efforts for more than 15 years, including the 1994 Assembly campaign of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

He has racked up the backing of diverse interest groups: Villaraigosa and a number of other city, state and federal elected officials, from Controller Laura Chick to U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra; the County Federation of Labor and other worker groups; and Caprice Young, a former board member and former leader of the California Charter Schools Association.

Meanwhile Stryer, 47, who became a teacher after working in business for 15 years, has gained the financial advantage. His latest campaign finance filings show the backing of dozens of Westside donors - including many from affluent Pacific Palisades, where he lives. Last year, he loaned himself $30,000, making up half of his war chest as of Jan. 17.

Stryer has the support of Westside City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, the administrators' union and a handful of local political groups, such as the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club.

"It's going to be a very, very close race," Zimmer said, noting that the recession and donor fatigue after a national election may have reduced financial support.

A previous election in the board district was a record-breaker - Canter alone spent over $2 million on her 2001 victory.

"If Mike does have the ability to continue to lend himself money, that becomes a factor. And all the endorsements in the world don't necessarily mean money," said Zimmer, who had raised about $36,000 as of Jan. 17.

For his part, Stryer's campaign is seeking to use his comparative paucity of endorsements to his advantage - saying it shows his independence from labor and political interest groups.

"It's not surprising that we wouldn't get endorsements from those in (the) power structure. The fact that we're so competitive without that institutional support shows that Mike's message of reform is resonating with the voters," said Randy Steinberg, Styer's campaign manager.

"Endorsements don't win elections."

Stryer is also calling his business background - working in international finance and sales - an asset at a time when the district could be facing $600 million in budget cuts next year. He's seeking to emphasize that as an attribute distinguishing him from Zimmer.

"I have never seen an institution that was more financially mismanaged," Stryer said of the district. "People need to have a clear understanding of where the money is being spent."

Zimmer's theme is that he is the candidate who can unify diverse interest groups - teachers, labor groups, community members, parents and reform constituencies - to forge a new path for the district.

"I'm the only person who can bring all those people to the table," he said. "Someone has got to build a bridge between these factions."

He calls it a "hybrid perspective," a derivative of his experience getting local residents invested in a health center he helped establish at Marshall and a community center he fought to build in Elysian Valley.

"(Stryer) thinks his business experience is what the board needs. I think my community-based experience is what it needs," Zimmer said.


What: Outgoing school board member Marlene Canter and the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles are hosting two forums for the candidates vying for the LAUSD board District 4 seat.

When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. today and Wednesday.

Where: Today: Woodland Hills Academy, 20800 Burbank Blvd., Woodland Hills. Wednesday: University High School, 11800 Texas Ave., Los Angeles.

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