Among all the state Assembly primaries last week, none raised more eyebrows in Los Angeles education circles than the race for an open seat in District 43, which includes Glendale, Burbank and parts of Los Angeles. The top two spots went to Laura Friedman, a member of the Glendale City Council, and Ardy Kassakhian, Glendale’s city clerk. Both Democrats, they’ll now face each other in a November runoff.
The seat was deemed important enough to The Parent Teacher Alliance, an independent expenditure committee supporting the California Charter Schools Association, that it spent more than $1.3 million on behalf of Friedman, part of a campaign in which supporters for both of the leading candidates used an image of Donald Trump to tarnish the other. (The Alliance has no connection to the California State PTA.)
The level of spending, as well as the links to Trump, made the campaign highly unusual for several reasons. First, education was not a major issue in the race, apart from Kassakhian reminding voters that his mother is a public school teacher. Also, there are no charter schools in Glendale and only one in Burbank. Second, Friedman’s campaign manager, Parke Skelton, said Friedman neither sought nor expected any financial support from a political action committee on behalf of charter schools. The level of support, he said, “was a shock to us.”
And finally, like Friedman, Kassakhian is a Democrat.
Heavy primary spending by the Parent Teacher Alliance – more than $3.8 million overall – comes as the charter association is pushing to meet its newly stated goal of serving 1 million children statewide by 2022, about double the current number. It also spent heavily for open Assembly seat races in districts 27 and 30.
Beyond that, the spending raises the possibility that charter interests will write more big checks next year, when four members of the L.A. Unified board face re-election, and the most divisive campaign issue is likely to be charter school growth.
Already, L.A. Unified has more charters than any other school district in the country, about 230, with more planning to seek approval in the year ahead. With so many in operation, the district has become ground zero in the proxy war for resources between charters and teachers unions across California. The charters insist that parents need more choices for their children, while teachers unions argue that charters don’t necessarily improve the academic outcomes they promise and they drain valuable resources from public schools. The conflict is playing out as the district faces budget deficits after next year.
At the moment, charter schools have only two reliable votes on the board — Mónica García, its longest-serving member and former president, and Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school executive who was elected to the board last year after a bruising campaign in which he defeated Bennett Kayser, the board member with the strongest ties to the state teachers unions and their local affiliate, United Teachers Los Angeles.
Turning over two seats next year would give charter interests greater say on a range of policy issues, and no one is more concerned about that than the current board president, Steve Zimmer, another strong ally of the unions who is facing a charter-friendly challenger next year.
What struck Zimmer most about the District 43 race, he said in an interview, was the tone of the charter group’s campaign material attacking Kassakhian, especially a mailer showing him as kindred spirit with Trump. The mailer asserts that the two have “shared values, common bonds,” pointing to Kassakhian’s past party affiliation as a Republican — he was, until he switched in the late 1990s — and his past support for Republican candidates.
Zimmer asserted that any comparison to Trump is grossly unfair.
“This is like Swift Boats and Willie Horton,” Zimmer said, referring to Republican presidential campaign attack strategies of the past. “This has nothing to do with charters. This is simply trying to destroy a man.”
Beyond the pro-charter group’s use of Trump to define Kassakhian, Carlos Marquez, political director for the charter committee, said the Parent Teacher Alliance interviewed candidates in many legislative races and chose to support those who seemed most open to charter interests in discussions of public education. Candidates in 14 other open seat Assembly races received no money from the group.
“For all our candidates, we were looking for a few characteristics,” he said. “We wanted to support candidates with clear-eyed positions on public education who make sure all stakeholders are at the table to discuss charter issues, and we wanted people with a demonstrated record of independence.”
Marquez said the use of Trump was fair play, given Kassakhian’s past as a Republican and the California Teachers Association Independent Expenditure Committee’s own use of Trump in campaign material attacking Friedman, which appeared earlier in the campaign. He called it “a very cynical attempt to tie Laura Friedman to Donald Trump.”
The CTA flier shows a smiling Trump peeking out from behind a superimposed photo of Friedman with the headline, “Right Wing Republicans Are Spending Millions to Elect Laura Friedman to The State Assembly!”
“The for-profit charter school industry had spent more than $1.3 million in this democratic primary,” said CTA spokeswoman Becky Zoglman, explaining why the union used a photo of Trump. “He’s a Republican like many of the billionaires funding the for-profit charter efforts whose real agenda is to privatize our public schools with no public oversight to voters. In fact, Friedman’s campaign questioned their motives and so do we.”
Records through June 3 from the California Secretary of State show that for the 2015-16 election cycle, the Parent Teacher Alliance spent heavily on Friedman and two other Democratic candidates – Madison Nguyen in the 27th district, which includes San Jose, and Anna Caballero in the 30th, which includes all of San Benito County and parts of Monterey, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.
Like the support for Friedman, spending on Nguyen by the pro-charter group exceeded $1.3 million. Spending for Caballero reached $800,000. All three won their primaries against fellow Democrats – Friedman with 31.9 percent of the vote to 24.4 for Kassakhian; Nguyen, with 35.1 percent to 19.7 for Ash Kalra; and Caballero, with 45.2 percent to 24.9 for Karina Cervantez Alejo, wife of the incumbent, Luis Alejo, who is termed out.
By contrast, the CTA committee spent only $47,721 in the District 43 race and nothing in the District 27 and 30 races, or any others.
Richard Garcia, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association on election matters, said once the expenditure committee narrowed its support to candidates for three open Assembly seats, it set a spending level based on the number of candidates in the field. The 43rd district had eight candidates; the 30th, four; and the 27th, seven.
The Parent Teacher Alliance also spent modestly to help two incumbent Assembly Democrats – $92,932 for Joaquin Arambula, of District 31, which includes Fresno; and $30,282 for Matt Dababneh, of District 45, which covers the west San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.