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March 12, 2017

Talking Points

A twist in the LA School Board race: Why the election may now hinge on the man who finished 4th in the primary

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This piece was produced in partnership with LA School Report; see LASR’s complete coverage of the 2017 school board race
The newest power broker at the Los Angeles Unified School District is the guy who finished last.

Whomever Gregory Martayan throws his support behind in the District 4 school board runoff could determine the outcome of the key race — and that race has the power to shift the balance of the board overseeing the nation’s second-largest school district.

Martayan was the fourth-place finisher in last week’s primary for the seat that covers the wealthy west side of Los Angeles, the tony west end of the San Fernando Valley and the star-laden Hollywood Hills.

(Read the complete Martayan profile: “We are going to cut the red tape”)

Since Tuesday, he has received hundreds of calls, emails, and Facebook messages from supporters, city leaders, state legislators, and even leaders in Washington, D.C. — and yes, the candidates themselves. They all want to know whom he is endorsing.

Martayan is keenly aware of the power of his endorsement and said he’s been advised about the ripple effect it will have across the country. He said Friday he hasn’t made his mind up yet about whom he will support.

“Our endorsement will determine which way this board ends up leaning. It will have a national impact. That decision weighs very heavily on me.”

Martayan talked to the LA School Report over a power breakfast at the Pacific Dining Car in downtown Los Angeles, a restaurant frequented for decades by LA’s political establishment. Within the confines of what once was a railroad dining car, Martayan dined on scrambled eggs with truffle butter. He’d traded in the power suit and tie of the campaign trail for a polo shirt and sweater vest.

“It’s humbling and, in effect, it’s even more responsibility than if I were elected with 51 percent on the day of the election, because the weight of the future sits on this decision.”

Here’s why everyone is courting Martayan:

If you do the math and assume that the 9,637 voters who voted for Allison Holdorff Polhill will go to Nick Melvoin in the runoff (Polhill endorsed Melvoin Wednesday and said she will campaign for him), adding to Melvoin’s 21,394 votes, about 1,100 votes would separate Melvoin and two-term incumbent and board president Steve Zimmer, who finished on top with 32,157 votes.

That's a combined 45.8 percent to Zimmer’s 47.4 percent.

And that makes the 4,600 voters who came out for Martayan on Tuesday key to determining the outcome on May 16.

This election, as in years past, has transcended the candidates and been a battle between the teachers union and education reformers and charter school supporters. Ahead of the primary, both sides poured nearly $5.4 million into mailers, TV and radio commercials, and digital ads to prop up their candidates and attack the opposition.

More than 70 percent of all the outside money for the three seats on the ballot were spent on the District 4 race. Zimmer has the backing of the teachers union and other labor groups, while Melvoin has support from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates and other deep-pocketed reformers. (Holdorff Polhill also received an endorsement from the CCSA Advocates.)

This election is seen as pivotal for the reformers to tip the balance of the board. If the reform-backed candidates sweep both the District 4 and District 6 runoffs, the seven-member board’s majority will lean charter-friendly, as opposed to board members who were endorsed by the teachers union.

Zimmer fell short of winning the primary outright by about 1,740 votes, according to preliminary results. The LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office is still counting ballots. The results won’t be final until the end of the month. So far, 67,788 votes have been counted in District 4.

Martayan plans to meet with Zimmer and Melvoin over the next couple of weeks to give them a chance to make their case. “We’ve gotta give them one last shot,” he said, before he makes his decision.

Martayan didn’t anticipate being in this position.

“On Monday, I didn’t expect to have the weight of the world on my shoulders on Wednesday,” he said.

He was seen as a dark horse candidate. Outside groups didn’t spend any money to oppose or endorse his candidacy, which separated him from his opponents. He raised about $71,000, the least of any of the four candidates. He was proud of the fact that all of his donors were from Southern California, mostly from within the district. During debates and in interviews, he railed against the influence of special interest groups who were trying to “buy the election.”

“Money doesn’t buy elections, but it’s a hell of a down payment,” he said. “What takes you the rest of the way is a community you can connect with.”

The themes of the calls and messages he’s received have been praise for running an honest and decent campaign and for bringing issues to the table that the other candidates weren’t talking about.

“I’m very proud that we ran a clean campaign,” he said.

One of the main reasons he decided to run was the hundreds of students who have been victims of child sexual abuse by LA Unified staff and the millions of dollars the district has paid out as a result of the lawsuits. Martayan is a reserve specialist with the Los Angeles Police Department, and safety was one of his main issues. He said his core supporters are not divided along charter or union lines.

“Both candidates are weak on the key points of our platform, which are the points that drove the 4,000-plus voters to our campaign,” Martayan said.

Another key area of Martayan’s platform that some viewed as controversial was his advocacy for bringing vending machines with kosher food to district campuses and zero-tolerance anti-Semitism policies for LA Unified staff. Interestingly, Martayan is not Jewish, but Zimmer and Melvoin are.

“That will be a part of the conversation when we meet with them, because a large part of my constituency is Orthodox Jewish, and I stand strong with the statements I made about my support for Israel and standing with all of the diverse communities of Los Angeles,” he said.

Martayan expects to decide whom he will endorse within the next few weeks, building the suspense.

“I think everyone is in agreement that our endorsement will tip the balance,” he said.

“I feel a sense of duty and call to action to endorse the right candidate. I’ve considered the idea of not to endorse anybody, but that would be a disservice to the families of Los Angeles, and if I can help frame a brighter future for Los Angeles, I’m going to do that.”