Amid a deep split in the black community in south Los Angeles, retired administrator George Mckenna won a seat on the LA Unified school board, fighting back substantial gains made by Alex Johnson a young education aide to County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, in a special election runoff yesterday.
Marked by voter low-turnout, the unofficial final results were: McKenna, 14,940; Johnson, 13,153. Voter turnout was low, with just eight percent of the voters coming to the polls.
The two candidates, both African American, split support among black leaders and elected officials, some of whom went to the mat to help the candidate of their choice: Congresswoman Maxine Waters took the unusual step of using her own campaign funds to send out campaign literature on behalf of McKenna; Mark Ridley-Thomas campaigned door-to-door for Johnson and used his network to raise money for his bid.
Outside influence was also an issue. Despite making his reputation when he was a principal and school turnaround champion by challenging the teachers union, McKenna won the support of the union in the special runoff, which used its political muscle to help reach out to voters. Johnson meanwhile attracted almost $800,000 in outside superPAC money, much of it from reform-minded education funders, who see him as a strong supporter of LA Unified’s outspoken Superintendent John Deasy. McKenna has refused to publicly share his views on Deasy, while his union backers, UTLA, have frequently demanded Deasy’s resignation.
Despite significantly less money, McKenna won by a safe 7 percent margin, but that amounted to the difference of a few thousand votes. Due to low voter turnout and renewed strength by the Johnson camp, McKenna lost voters since the June 3 primary. In that race he received 20,000 votes – 5000 more than he attracted in yesterday’s election. Johnson gained about 3000 more voters than he had won in the June primary election.
In the end, almost 9 months after long-time board member Marguerite LaMotte died in office, the school board will now once again have a full, seven member panel, and the south Los Angeles district, plagued by poverty and low performing schools, will once again have representation. As the new board member, McKenna could provide the deciding vote in a number of crucial issues facing the district including threats from the teachers union that is preparing to strike. But his role will need to be renewed by voters in just six months, when the regularly scheduled school board race takes place in March of next year.