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Outside spending on LAUSD election shatters records, with spending in other races modest

UPDATED — Outside groups are spending money at unheard of levels on this year's Los Angeles Unified School board race. Meanwhile, city council races and a citywide ballot measure on police oversight are attracting more modest sums, according to campaign finance reports filed today.

A constellation of interest groups have poured more than $14.3 million into the LAUSD races this year, including $1.7 million in the campaign's final weekend. That figure that could climb even more before Tuesday's election.

Two-thirds of the spending has come from groups that support the expansion of charter schools. Charter advocates have spent big at all levels of California politics in recent years.

In Los Angeles, school reform groups are backing candidate Nick Melvoin in the fourth district on the westside of Los Angeles. And they've poured nearly $3 million into attacking his opponent, incumbent and board president Steve Zimmer.

Zimmer has been supported by outside spending from other groups, including teacher's unions, though not at the same level.

The race for the other school seat up for grabs splits along the same lines: charter-backed Kelly Gonez is taking on union-backed Imelda Padilla. Spending in that race, to represent the East San Fernando Valley, has topped $5 million.

The waves of cash put an exclamation mark on a shift towards outside spending in school board races, and away from direct contributions towards campaigns, which are more tightly regulated. As recently as 2009, outside spending was outpaced by campaign fundraising. That hasn't happened again since.

L.A. school board candidate Nick Melvoin, right, walks with campaign volunteer Melissa Lawson while distributing campaign literature and knocking on doors in Mar Vista.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
L.A. school board candidate Nick Melvoin, right, walks with campaign volunteer Melissa Lawson while distributing campaign literature and knocking on doors in Mar Vista.

“It is disgusting to see the amount of money in this race," said Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a speech to workers at Zimmer's campaign office this weekend. Garcetti has endorsed Zimmer.

"It’s more money for one school district," Garcetti noted, "than my competitive race four years ago for mayor."

In 2013, outside groups spent $10.7 million to influence L.A.'s mayoral campaign. Candidates campaigns cannot legally coordinate with the groups making these "independent expenditures," meaning they have no say in how the money gets spent.

However, mayoral candidates also raised more than $20 million for their own campaigns in 2013. All told, school board candidates have raised a smaller total for their own campaigns this year — about $2 million. But that total is still the highest in 10 years for an L.A. Unified campaign.

Zimmer said the levels of outside spending by groups linked the the California Charter Schools Association, in particular, showed "the incredible greed and hunger and desire for power that's going on here."

"The way this is being prosecuted is something that no one who cares about democracy should be comfortable with," he said.

Melvoin also expressed dismay at the levels of outside spending in the race, but noted Zimmer, too, had the support of powerful players, including Garcetti.

"You have a bevvy of the establishment that's supporting the incumbent. It's hard to take that on," Melvoin said, adding later, “Doesn’t mean I like the idea of all this outside money, but the idea that somehow Steve is the underdog I find kind of laughable given all of the institutional endorsements, the name ID.”

L.A. Unified school board president Steve Zimmer with campaign volunteers while canvassing in Mar Vista.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
L.A. Unified school board president Steve Zimmer with campaign volunteers while canvassing in Mar Vista.

Battles over police reform measure, council seats

In other areas of Los Angeles, there's only one item on the ballot: Charter Amendment C. The citywide ballot measure would allow officers facing discipline to choose an all-civilian review board. The current Board of Rights has two LAPD command officers and one civilian.

The measure was pushed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the LAPD's rank and file.

Their committee has raised $280,000 this year to sway voters, according to filings with the City Ethics Commission. But the group has drawn on cash in the bank to spend more than $1.25 million.

That's paid for newspaper inserts, telephone calls and glossy mailers, all promoting Charter Amendment C as a reform measure. One communication from the group promises to fix "the broken police discipline system".

On the other side, a recently-formed group is seeking to defeat the measure.The opponents are likely playing catch-up, but it's unclear: as of 5 p.m. Friday, no group had filed paperwork with the city over spending to defeat Charter Amendment C.

The City Ethics Commission has posted a script for phone calls opposing the measure, from a group named Community Coalition Action Fund Measure C.

Along with the ballot measure and school board races, voters in Council Districts 1 and 7 will select their council members Tuesday. Candidates in those races filed their own reports today.

In the first district race incumbent, Gil Cedillo has maintained a sizable fundraising lead over challenger Joe Bray-Ali. The race has been roiled by a series of revelations about Bray-Ali, including his online comments on racist forums.

In the seventh district, two relative unknowns with similar political leanings are fighting for an open seat. Monica Rodriguez, a former vice president of the L.A. Board of Public Works and Karo Torossian, who worked for Councilman Paul Krekorian, emerged from a field of 20 contenders in the March primary. Reports there show Rodriguez edging ahead of Torossian in fundraising in the general election.

Outside spenders have dumped more than a $1.2 million into those two races, including more than $800,000 since the primary. But political money in council races has trailed behind the runaway spending in 2017's school board contests.

This post was updated at 11 p.m. on Sunday, May 14, with new independent expenditure totals and comments from Garcetti, Melvoin and Zimmer.