Michael Macor/SF Chronicle
John Chiang, Antonio Villaraigosa, Delaine Eastin and Gavin Newsom (l to r) in a forum in San Francisco with Democratic candidates for governor in October 2017.

Pro-charter school contributions to the campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took another significant leap forward with the contribution of $1 million Wednesday by Richard Riordan, another former L.A. mayor.

Riordan donated the funds to an independent expenditure committee called Families and Teachers for Antonio Villaraigosa for Governor.  It was established by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the political advocacy arm of the California Charter Schools Association, which represents most of the state’s nearly 1,300 charter schools. Charter schools now enroll just over 1 in 10 of California’s 6.2 million public school students.

This brings the total pro-charter contributions to Villaraigosa over the past week to $9.5 million. Last week, Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings contributed $7 million to the same committee, along with $1.5 million from Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad. Both are multi-billionaires.

Their contributions underscored the extent to which the race to succeed Gov. Jerry Brown, at least as far as campaign contributions go, is becoming a proxy war between competing sides on a range of issues affecting the growth and management of charter schools in the state.

It also reflects the urgency of Villaraigosa’s supporters to bump up his support by the June 5 primary, which is just over six weeks away. In the latest polls, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is far ahead of Villaraigosa, who is running neck and neck, or  behind, Republican John Cox. Under California’s election laws, the two top vote-getters, regardless of their party affiliation, would go on to face each other the November general election.

Newsom has been endorsed by all the major teachers unions, including the California Teachers Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Newsom insists that he is not against charter schools. “For 20 years I’ve been supporting high-quality, nonprofit charter schools,” he told LA Times columnist George Skelton today. “But I believe in accountability and transparency.”

The contributions made by Hastings, Broad and Riordan are comparable to the amounts they have made to charter school causes in the past several years, including massive contributions last spring to elect a majority on the Los Angeles Unified School board whom they believe would be more sympathetic to further charter school expansion in the district.

Under California’s campaign laws, direct contributions to a gubernatorial campaign are limited $29,200. But there are no limits to contributions to independent expenditure committees, as long as they don’t coordinate their activities with the candidates or their campaigns.

The goal now for Villaraigosa’s backers is to ensure that he comes in at least second in the primary to give him a shot at winning in a head-to-head contest with Newsom in the November general election. If Cox comes in second in the June primary, Newsom is virtually certain to be elected governor in November, because a Republican has no chance of winning due to overwhelming Democratic registration in the state.

Thus what happens in the next few weeks will be decisive in determining who California’s next governor will be.

The California Secretary of State’s office is expected to release more campaign finance reports in the next few weeks, which will give a clearer indication of how the competing candidates’ fundraising efforts compare. So far, the California Teachers Association, which has endorsed Newsom, has not made any reported contributions to Newsom’s campaign, but it is highly likely that it is only a matter of time before they do so.

Riordan, a Republican, was mayor of Los Angeles from 1993 to 2001, while Villaraigosa, a Democrat, was mayor from 2005 to 2013. They have found common cause around school issues, especially regarding Villaraigosa’s hostility to the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association.

At a forum of former LA mayors in February 2017, Riordan joked that “as long as the teachers union hates him, I’ll support him for governor.” He is now making good on that sentiment with a major contribution to support Villaraigosa’s bid for the state’s top office.

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