The gubernatorial campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got another big boost this week when William Oberndorf, a San Francisco philanthropist and ally of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, contributed $2 million to a committee set up by charter school advocates to promote the former Los Angeles mayor’s bid to be the next governor of California.
Oberndorf, a Republican and major GOP donor, replaced DeVos as chairperson of American Federation for Children in 2016 when she was named by Donald Trump to join his cabinet.
The goal of the organization which DeVos co-founded is to promote greater “school choice” for parents, especially low-income ones, by providing taxpayer supported subsidies to offset the cost of private school tuition. That could include vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts and other strategies.
Oberndorf’s contribution went to Families and Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa, an independent expenditure committee established by the Charter School Association of California Advocates. Under state law, the committee can promote a candidate but can not coordinate their activities with the candidate’s campaign.
Also this week former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed another $1 million to the pro-Villaraigosa committee, to supplement the $1.5 million he had already contributed earlier this month.
Their contributions bring the total amount raised by the committee to just over $16 million over the past month, mostly contributed by a handful of high-wealth individuals. With these funds, the committee has been running television ads and sending out colorful materials to boost Villaraigosa’s odds in the June 5 primary.
At stake is whether Villaraigosa will be able to drum up support in less than three weeks to beat out GOP contenders John Cox or Travis Allen, or Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, his principal Democratic opponent and frontrunner in numerous polls. Villairaigosa needs to come in at least second in the June 5 primary, now less than three weeks away, to get a spot in the November general election in his bid to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown.
If the polls are correct, Villaraigosa will have a lot of ground to cover before the primary. According to the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies Poll late last month, Villaraigosa was running fourth at 9 percent with Newsom in first place at 30 percent followed by Republicans John Cox at 18 percent and Travis Allen at 16 percent.
So far, the biggest contributor to the pro-charter committee backing Villaraigosa is Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings, with a $7 million contribution.
But it is Oberndorf’s contribution that could give ammunition to Villaraigosa’s critics who are attempting to link his campaign and his pro-charter supporters to DeVos’ agenda — and by extension President Donald Trump’s. Those critics say DeVos and her boss want to divert taxpayer funds to support private schools at the expense of public ones.
Oberndorf is a pioneer in the school choice movement. He chairs Oberndorf Enterprises, LLC which invests his family’s assets. Oberndorf co-founded the investment firm SPO Partners & Co. from which he retired in 2012.
Oberndorf and his family foundation have also made major contributions to many other causes, including $25 million to the UCSF for research in psychiatry and other behavioral sciences. He serves as the chair of the university’s foundation.
Attempts by EdSource to reach Oberndorf for comment were not successful.
The California Teachers Association has endorsed Newsom, at the same time that it is waging its own online “Kids Not Profits” campaign urging more oversight and transparency in charter school operations. The campaign got underway long before the current electoral season. A central argument has been that billionaires are attempting to promote charter schools at the expense of private schools.
“Antonio Villaraigosa is clearly aligned with Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump and their agenda to privatize public education, to expand charter schools, to strip educators of their rights,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which is supporting Newsom for governor. “He is getting all of this support from the billionaires because he is committed to pushing their agenda if he becomes California’s next governor.”
Villaraigosa had already anticipated criticism along these lines.
“They’ll describe me as Betsy DeVos and, you know, put a picture of Donald Trump by my face, but I think anybody that’s lived here, and worked to improve our schools, knows the truth,” he said during a Campaign for College Opportunity forum in Los Angeles on April 24, “I want to stand up for your kids. I want them to have every shot in the world.”
Luis Vizcaino, a spokesperson for the Villaraigosa campaign, didn’t respond directly to the Oberndorf contribution. “Mayor Villaraigosa’s focus is how we unite Californians to lift more families into the middle class — and keep them there,” he said. “This campaign isn’t going to be distracted from that mission by outside efforts for us, or against us.”
Villaraigosa, for years an acerbic critic of California’s teachers unions despite having worked for them for years, has been a strong advocate of charter schools, but not of private school vouchers. The California Charter School Association has also come out against introducing private school vouchers in California. In fact, it declared in a letter to California legislators right after Trump was elected that “it would actively resist” introducing them into the state.
Gary Borden, executive director of the CCSA Advocates, which set up the pro-Villaraigosa committee, said it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a Republican like Oberndorf supporting Villaraigosa’s campaign. “Education is a bipartisan issue,” he said. “Antonio is a guy who has worked across the aisle comfortably … It would be perfectly understandable to have support from both Democrats and Republicans alike.”
As for Villaraigosa’s critics, the CCSA Advocates’ Borden said “I think they’ve already tried to make a connection between Villaraigosa and Betsy DeVos. People haven’t fallen for it so far and I think they won’t fall for it going forward.”
But at this volatile moment in the campaign season, the issue is unlikely to go away. Without addressing the Oberndorf contribution directly, Addisu Demissie, Newsom’s campaign manager, said Newsom “is proud to be a lifelong champion of public education and has enthusiastically supported both traditional schools and non-profit charter schools. But he is a not rubber stamp for any group, especially those who align themselves with Betsy DeVos.”
Oberndorf gave more than $4 million to independent expenditure committees known as super PACs during the 2016 election cycle, much of which went toward supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign and Republican candidates for Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
He is not predictably partisan, however. According to The New York Times, he refused to give money to Donald Trump’s campaign and said he would rather vote for Hillary Clinton. He has also contributed relatively small amounts to several Democratic campaigns, like that of Cory Booker’s successful run for U.S. senator from New Jersey.
Still, Oberndorf’s political donations have more often gone to Republicans causes. For the 2018 midterm elections, he has contributed $1.75 million over the past year to a pair of national super PACs working to elect Republicans to Congress, according to national databases. ProPublica reports one contribution. Two others are listed with the Center for Responsive Politics.
To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.