Boosted in part by Speak UP’s efforts to turn out the vote in the primarily Latino Southeast section of LAUSD’s Board District 5, Huntington Park Councilmember and school counselor Graciela Ortiz appears to be headed for a runoff against veteran politician Jackie Goldberg, who last served on the school board in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
Goldberg, 74, who was backed by United Teachers Los Angeles and received $640,000 in outside union spending to support her campaign, rode the wave of the teachers strike to take a solid lead with 48.26 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, she fell short of the more than 50 percent needed to win outright and avoid a runoff May 14.
Ortiz led candidate Heather Repenning for the second-place spot by just 53 votes after all the results were tallied on election night. With provisional and late-arriving mail-in ballots still uncounted, results could still change. Principal Cynthia Gonzalez took fourth place, and parent/educator Allison Bajracharya took fifth.
Repenning, who received backing and nearly $1 million in support from SEIU Local 99, the union representing LAUSD bus drivers, cafeteria workers and special education aides, is not conceding the race for second place. There’s also still a slim chance Goldberg could win outright and avoid a runoff.
If Ortiz, 38, holds onto the second place spot, the runoff will present a stark generational, geographic and racial contrast. Ortiz, who works as an attendance counselor at Linda Marquez High School, has strong roots in the primarily Latino Southeast.
Grassroots support helped her overcome a massive spending disadvantage. While Ortiz raised more money than any other Latino candidate, $129,000, she was the fourth place fundraiser overall and had far less spent on her behalf ($90,558) than Goldberg ($640,913), Repenning ($765,704) or Bajracharya ($138,695). SEIU also poured almost $37,000 into negative ads opposing Ortiz.
Speak UP parent leaders, working in coalition with Parent Revolution and Families and Teachers United, clearly had an impact on the results. While none endorsed a candidate, all three focused efforts on informing voters in the Southeast cities of Huntington Park, South Gate, Vernon, Bell, Maywood and Cudahy about the election and encouraging them to vote.
After knocking on more than 22,000 doors and making more than 21,000 phone calls to voters, Speak UP and its coalition partners received pledges to participate in the election from nearly 4,500 voters. Ortiz leads the race for a second-place runoff spot with just 3,368 votes.
“Speak UP parent leaders worked hard to get the word out to their neighbors that this was an important opportunity for their community to have a voice,” said Speak UP Executive Director Katie Braude. “They wanted to make their voices heard, and they did.”
Race and geography could be defining factors in the runoff, which is shaping up to be a contest between whiter and more affluent communities in the north and lower-income and historically under-represented Latino communities in the Southeast.
While 90 percent of the more than 81,000 LAUSD students in District 5 are Latino, most of the voters and winning candidates in the past have come from the northern part of the district, including Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Mount Washington, Highland Park and Eagle Rock. While the district was specifically drawn as part of the Voting Rights Act to maximize the chances of Latino representation, higher turnout in the north nevertheless gives a distinct advantage to Goldberg, which is reflected in her commanding lead.
Nearly all students in the Southeast – 97 percent – are Latino, and 91 percent are low-income, according to a report from Innovate Public Schools. More than a quarter are English Language Learners. Parents in the Southeast strongly favor a candidate who speaks fluent Spanish, according to a survey from the Alliance For a Better Community. Ortiz and Repenning both speak Spanish, while Goldberg does not.
Latino parents in the Southeast are also less invested in a status quo in which only four out of 10 students in the Southeast are achieving at grade level in English and just three out of 10 in math. Out of the 89 schools in the Southeast, only nine are above the state average in English and math. In ABC’s survey, nearly half of the Spanish-speaking BD5 parents said their child’s school was on the wrong track and were three times more likely to say they had difficulty getting help for their children.
“It’s so imperative for our community to have representation,” said Gloria Rodriguez, a parent at Linda Marquez High School who campaigned for Ortiz. “We need someone to finally understand the needs of Southeast L.A. Volunteer parents and community leaders all have stepped up.”
During the primary campaign, Goldberg was subjected to negative advertising from SEIU that highlighted remarks Goldberg made to the Los Angeles Times during her time on the Board in November of 1989, in which she blamed Latino cultural beliefs for their troubling school dropout rate. Goldberg may also have to overcome the perception that she did not value the voices and votes of parents in the Southeast when she asked the Board to appoint her to the position last year.
Goldberg’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the election Wednesday. Her campaign manager reached out to Speak UP seeking an interview for Speak UP’s Election Watch page in January but then quickly cancelled the request before the interview could be scheduled. She was the only leading candidate who declined to be interviewed in depth by Speak UP.
The primary race shaped up largely as a battle between two unions, UTLA versus SEIU, and if Repenning fails to make the runoff, it’s unclear whether SEIU will play a large role in the May race. Repenning was also endorsed by Mayor Eric Garcetti and was one of several parents in the running. If she gets knocked out of the race, the Board will remain without any parents of school-age children serving as representatives.
Ortiz, who is a UTLA member, has received backing from the school police union and has a stronger focus on school safety than Goldberg does. Expect Ortiz to highlight generational differences with Goldberg, too. While schools in the Southeast are struggling with performance issues, Ortiz told Speak UP that local schools were far worse for Latinos when she attended them and when Goldberg served on the Board than they are now.
One election expert believes that Ortiz has the best shot of any of the candidates in a runoff against Goldberg. “With Ortiz winning, it gives Latinos, for whom the district lines were created to help provide more Latino voices on the Board, an opportunity to mobilize and elect what appears to be a moderate to the board,” said Pollster Paul Goodwin, who has worked on many school board races. “Now it is up to the southern part of the district to stand up and be represented.”