Zimmer ‘damns’ Rodriguez and his supporters for attacks on Kayser
Vanessa Romo | May 18, 2015
If Ref Rodriguez wins election tomorrow, he’s got no friend in Steve Zimmer.
Rodriguez is the challenger in the race for LA Unified school board District 5 against Bennett Kayser, easily the most heated of the three board elections. A loss by Kayser could shift the ideological balance of the seven member board from pro-union to pro-charter.
While Zimmer, a former teacher and teachers union advocate who represents board District 4, has been a reliable and long-time Kayser supporter, he recently railed against Rodriguez’s “reformer” agenda and campaign tactics, as well as his most powerful and generous supporter, the California Charter Schools Association political action committee.
“Damn them! Damn them!” Zimmer exclaimed during a fire-and-brimstone speech at a Kayser fundraiser last month, about 7 minutes of which is on YouTube.
The remarks came in response to a series of campaign attack ads against Kayser that Zimmer said portrays the incumbent as a racist slumlord whose Parkinson’s disease makes him unfit to serve a second term.
In an interview with LA school Report today, Zimmer doubled down on his scathing criticism of Rodriguez and CCSA.
“They have crossed new frontiers of depravity in this campaign,” Zimmer said. “This is the most amoral type of campaigning, using a type of lies and distortion, that lowered the entire moral climate of political discourse.”
After acknowledging “far too much polarization in the discussion around our schools” based on Zimmer’s remarks at the fundraiser, Rodriguez declined to comment on Zimmer’s remarks to LA School Report.
Over six years on the board Zimmer has strived to take on the role of peacemaker/conciliator/mediator on a number of divisive issues — even under former Superintendent John Deasy who embraced charter schools, fought to tie teacher evaluations to test scores and put record numbers of teachers in “teacher jails.”
But, Zimmer says, those days are over.
“I come to them with olive branches, they respond with napalm,” he said in the interview referring to the interests that would align with Rodriguez.
CCSA has spent several million dollars in mailers, radio and television advertisements boosting Rodriguez’s qualifications and assaulting Kayser’s character. One mailer calls Kayser a “slumlord millionaire” who “forces tenants to live in filth.”
Another flyer featured a group of brown-skinned children below Spanish that translates to: “Bennett Kayser tried to stop Latino children from attending schools in white neighborhoods.” On the other side, it says, “He’s not for us.” An LA Times editorial following the release of the ad accused CCSA of engaging in “slimy tactics on behalf of children.”
And, a commercial equating Kayser to a 90s movie villain — Kayser Soze — ended with the shattering of a coffee cup. Kayser allies argue it is a thinly veiled allusion to his Parkinson’s disease.
“Where is the middle ground when people are trying to destroy a human being?” Zimmer asked.
Although most of the anti-Kayser campaigning has been paid for by CCSA and, therefore, is technically not part of the official campaign, Zimmer says Rodriguez, as a charter school founder, bears ultimate responsibility for the tone of his campaign.
Like Kayser, Zimmer was in a contentious re-election race just two years ago and his opponent, Kate Anderson, was heavily financed by CCSA and other reformers with deep pockets, including Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $1 million to Anderson and candidates in two other races.
“I’ve been a candidate, and candidates make decisions about the parameters that they will allow and associate with their campaign,” Zimmer said. “Ref is absolutely responsible.”
Should Rodriguez defeat Kayser, as he did in the March primary, relations on the board will become even more strained, at least for Zimmer.
“If there ever was a relationship there with Rodriguez, it has been seriously damaged,” Zimmer said with an air of finality.
Zimmer, an educator for more than 20 years, said the attacks against Kayser amounted to attacks against him. “They’re against everything I stand and everything I’ve tried to do,” he said. “They’re saying I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
Board meetings are already pretty testy, a result of multiple personal and political beefs between members. Tamar Galatzan and Monica Ratliff, for example, rarely see eye to eye. Galatzan and Monica Garcia are often on the opposite side of an issue with George McKenna. And board president Richard Vladovic is a bit of a wild card, especially recently while he’s been running for re-election.
But neither Galatzan’s race tomorrow against Scott Schmerelson in District 3 nor Vladovic’s against Lydia Gutierrez in District 7 has played out with the same degree of vitriol.
“I talk about re-humanizing teachers and the district and that includes board members,” Zimmer said. “We are human… how can we not take these attacks personally?”
* Adds Rodriguez response.