UPDATED April 10
This piece was produced in partnership with LA School Report; see LASR’s complete coverage of the 2017 school board race.
Steve Zimmer, the LA Unified school board president who is in a heated re-election battle, has barely raised any money ahead of next month’s runoff and says he is too busy to campaign for the seat he’s held for eight years.
Zimmer’s opponent, Nick Melvoin, has raised nearly 10 times as much as Zimmer since the March primary. The first attack ad spending against Zimmer in the runoff was filed Friday.
Zimmer says it’s tough to find time to campaign. The 74's team at LA School Report caught him last week after a three-hour committee meeting and before he was on his way to Sacramento for school board business the next day. “I don’t have time,” he said flatly. “Being school board president is a full-time job, and teaching is extremely important to me.”
Zimmer teaches a class Wednesday nights at Occidental College and has his job as school board president – for which is he paid a part-time salary of $26,000, just as three of the other seven school board members. He noted that he is up against a competitor who has been campaigning full time.
“Nick has been campaigning full time for over a year,” Zimmer said. “I’m going to Sacramento because I need to go there now. It’s about the budget. There is funding at the state level that we need in order to mitigate the hit that’s happening federally. We’re leading the nation in resisting the federal pressures. I have to go and make sure the voices of teachers and children and families of this district are very much in the mix in Sacramento.”
Zimmer added, “Does that have an impact on campaigns and fundraising and things like that? Of course! Of course it does, but I have a job to do, and that transcends an election.”
The high-stakes race has received national attention as the ideological balance of the board will be determined in five weeks, when voters decide May 16 which candidates will represent the west side and east San Fernando Valley districts on the seven-member board. Education reformers and charter school supporters are vying to regain a reform majority on the board with Melvoin in District 4 and Kelly Gonez in District 6, while teacher unions and other labor groups are working to return Zimmer and elect Imelda Padilla to the board to maintain its labor-friendly slant.
In the primary, more money was spent both to oppose and support Zimmer than on any other candidate. Friday’s filing was the first negative ad spending against Zimmer by opposition groups since the primary, and that will only continue to grow in the run-up to the general election, especially after the city clerk’s office begins sending vote-by-mail ballots on April 17.
An independent expenditure committee sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates spent nearly $55,000 on a mailer attacking Zimmer, according to documents obtained by LA School Report. The report had not been posted on the city Ethics Commission website as of Sunday. “There will be many more,” said John Shallman, chief strategist for two IEs, one funded by former LA Mayor Richard Riordan and another that is associated with the California Charter Schools Association. Shallman provided the copies of the filings. “We’re running a really robust field operation. We’ll be in mailboxes, we’ll be in people’s social media. It’s really going to be a full court press because that’s what’s necessary to win these kinds of races.”
Ahead of the primary, teacher unions and labor groups spent $1.3 million to support Zimmer, while IEs funded by Riordan and charter school supporters and reform advocates spent $1.6 million to oppose him. This doesn’t include unreported spending by UTLA, the LA teacher union, on a public relations campaign supporting Zimmer and Padilla that is under investigation by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
So far, UTLA’s IE has spent about $43,000 to support Zimmer and $44,000 against Melvoin, campaign finance records show. Mevloin’s supporters have spent about $120,000 so far. The CCSA Advocates’ IE filed paperwork Friday reporting nearly $134,000 on phone banking, canvassing, and a mailer, which hadn’t been posted online as of Sunday. So far in the runoff IEs have spent more money in the District 6 race than in Zimmer’s and Melvoin’s race, a shift from the primary.
Shallman said both of his committees have spent time and money for voters to get to know Melvoin before focusing on negative ads against Zimmer.
“There’s going to be a lot of effort on the part of our committees to make sure that voters see there is an extraordinary opportunity to put a former teacher and educator on the board in place of a guy who’s been there for eight years,” he said. “There will be contrasting messaging in the course of the next five and a half to six weeks.”
Campaign finance reports on what candidates themselves have raised, which were released Thursday, the first since the primary, show that Melvoin has raised nearly $144,000, which is nearly 10 times Zimmer’s total of $15,000. Melvoin also outraised Zimmer in the primary. Candidates must open new campaign accounts and start fundraising from scratch in the general election.
IEs on the reform side have spent about $2.5 million on the District 4 race so far, while labor groups have spent $1.7 million.
Richard Garcia, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association Advocates which has endorsed Melvoin and Gonez, said strategies on spending in the runoff are being worked out.
“If UTLA continues with their issues ad mailers, wherein they brandish Zimmer to voters without having to report the amounts spent on the mailers, we will again be heavily outspent as in the primary,” he said, referencing the FPPC investigation.
Zimmer admitted there is money coming in from labor unions, but he said it’s not anything like the amounts funding his opponent.
“To say that there’s any equality isn’t true,” Zimmer said. “Yes, there is labor money coming in to support my campaign through independent expenditures, but there’s no comparison. There’s no comparison between how hard people have to work to get that money and on the other side of the equation. Six million is nothing to them.”
He said the labor money coming to his and Padilla’s campaigns was at the expense of other school board races. “You know, people made a conscious decision not to support five smaller school board races across this country to do that. I mean, this is not unlimited, It’s very different.”
Melvoin was not available on Friday for an interview. His campaign spokeswoman Megan Vandenbos sent a statement saying, “Steve Zimmer is clearly relying exclusively on the outside special interests to support his campaign, which is part of the reason there’s an investigation for the way those outside groups are helping him. In the era of Citizens United, Nick is dedicated to reaching voters directly with his message and ensuring his campaign is transparent and accountable. Nick’s campaign has been funded with over 420 contributors, and it is that broad base of support that is going to ensure Nick can bring the kind of change that LAUSD so desperately needs.”
Zimmer said he knows the stakes are high. “I understand we have the eyes of the country. The people who are supporting Nick and charter schools associations can turn around tomorrow and write a big check, just like anywhere else they want to compete. They can do that and not even blink. On the labor side, there’s always a cost. It’s not unlimited.”