UPDATE August 13, 2014 6:00 a.m.
With an estimated 8 percent of registered voters turning out, George McKenna has defeated Alex Johnson for the open District 1 seat. McKenna received 53 percent of the vote to 47 percent for Johnson, out of the nearly 27,000 voters who cast their ballot.
An unusual runoff election with what is expected to be an extremely low voter turnout is taking place in Los Angeles today, with potentially far-reaching implications for education in the state’s largest school district.
The special election — coinciding with the first day of school — is being held to fill the vacant District 1 seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education left by the death of long time member Marguerite Poindexter Lamotte last December.
Facing off are 74-year-old former school principal and superintendent George McKenna – who was once the subject of a made-for-TV movie, with Denzel Washington in the leading role – and 34-year-old Alex Johnson, a staffer to Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
Whoever wins could sway the balance of power on the board on several key issues.
As Howard Blume wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The winner is likely to cast pivotal votes on a divided school board, affecting such district policies as how teachers are evaluated, and how large a pay raise they will receive; whether charter schools will have a champion, and whether aggressive schools Supt. John Deasy will have free rein in these and other matters.”
The election should be a slam dunk for McKenna, who won 44 percent of the vote in the special election held in June, compared to the 25 percent garnered by Johnson.
But Johnson has raised far more money than McKenna, and he has also in recent weeks unleashed several negative campaign ads leveling a range of charges against McKenna. Several well-known education and community leaders, including San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Randolph Ward, have said the ads are misleading and unfair.
Support for the two candidates doesn’t break down into neat ideological or political lines. While McKenna has the backing of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Johnson is supported by the Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents most non-teaching employees in the district. McKenna has been endorsed by Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Karen Bass, while Johnson has the backing of Congresswoman Janice Hahn and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Despite being the underdog in the race, Johnson has raised far more money than McKenna. According to figures published by the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, through Aug. 6 Johnson had outraised McKenna in individual contributions, $421,522 compared to $177,823 and held a big edge in money spent on his behalf by independent groups, $840,549 to $286,078.