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Lessons From LA: Sentimental Selections, Bad Polling, Unintended Results

Bus-LAUSDThere are some obvious lessons from Monica Ratliff's stunning and instructive defeat of Antonio Sanchez in this week's LAUSD School Board runoff for District 6. 

Ratliff went from having come in ten points behind Sanchez in the primary (34-44) to beating Sanchez by four points in the runoff (52-48).  The Coalition and the SEIU spent over $2 million to elect Sanchez. Ratliff, meanwhile, spent roughly $50,000 and had no special interest support.

Many of these are covered in Valerie Strauss's latest piece (The billionaires lose one), and I hope they'll be remembered the next time there's a race like this.  Money and political pedigree are no guarantee of victory.  Sometimes at least the underdog wins.  

But there are other less obvious lessons and considerations:

Sanchez was recruited and selected by Mayor Villaraigosa in what seems like a sentimental move more than a clear-eyed decision about who would stand the best chances of winning the seat.[Rumors are that Ratliff was recruited to run by the UTLA from her spot as a House of Representatives delegate have never been confirmed.] There were other candidates that could have been chosen, none of them perfect but in hindsight Sanchez seems extremely weak.

The reform community in LA has been personality-based, an ad hoc set of individuals who come together for a brief period of time and then go back to their day jobs in between elections.  There's an independent expenditure committee, the Coalition for School Reform, that appears every couple of years as a collection point for contributions, but there's no nonprofit c(3) or c(4) organization laying foundations and building relationships in between elections along the lines that UTLA and many other operations have.

Last but not least, the union's decision to endorse all the candidates from the start (rather than have to go through the process of re-endorsing candidates along the way) seemed to most of the world like a big win for Sanchez, who was also getting massive outside support from the Villaraigosa camp, but also prevented Sanchez from attacking Ratliff for her union affiliations. UTLA couldn’t spend any real money on Ratliff, but it also meant that the Coalition couldn’t attack Ratliff for being beholden to the union.

“We took away from the Coaltion the one thing they desperately needed — a negative message,” said Brent Smiley, a Ratliff supporter. “We didn’t let them hit the teachers union. They had absolutely nothing negative to say.”

Tidbits:  Going negative is not a prerequisite for winning. Field work and turnout are key, as are absentee (vote by mail) ballots.  Internal polling isn't reliable.  (The Coalition's polling had Sanchez ahead by 20 points, leading them to pull back on spending the more than $750,000 they had in reserve.) Refrigerator magnets. 

For two post-election reports on what happened, read here and here.


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Alexander, somebody accidentally deleted the comment I posted this morning, rather than answering it.

I'm truly interested in what "independent" reform-partisan writers might see in the LA election (as opposed to what the reform advocacy industry sees, if there is indeed a difference). I'm still not sure where you stand, but I think you've written several rather cynical pieces now, as though the advocacy industry itself was your home.

John Merrow has come over, as you know, and is now questioning some previous assumptions. His work is genuinely welcomed and appreciated. My comment to you was:

No other lessons from the LA election occur to you? Really?

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