Big spending turns California’s race for governor into a proxy war between teachers unions, charter school backers

For most of us, the notion of someone spending $7 million to help another person run for governor is beyond comprehension.

Even if you had that much spare change, what could possibly justify such a huge personal investment?

Netflix co-founder and Chief Executive Reed Hastings last week donated $7 million to bolster the financially struggling gubernatorial bid of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. An additional $1.5 million was kicked in by L.A. developer and philanthropist Eli Broad.

They like Villaraigosa’s history of championing charter schools.

“It is a rather jaw-dropping amount of money,” the race’s front-runner, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, told me. “But these are the rules of engagement, and they’re playing by the rules. I don’t begrudge Antonio and don’t condemn the contributors.”

But it does make a mockery of official campaign contribution limits, which increasingly have become ineffective in controlling special interest influence on politicians’ public policy decisions.

The legal limit on how much an individual can donate directly to a California gubernatorial candidate is $29,200 per election. Double that to $58,400 for the primary and general elections combined.

But there’s a huge loophole for the super-rich and special interests. They can give an unlimited amount to an “independent expenditure” committee that supports a candidate. The only condition is that the independent committee is not allowed to coordinate its strategy with the candidate’s campaign.

Hastings and Broad gave their millions to an independent committee sponsored by the California Charter Schools Assn.

The independent expenditure loophole was sanctioned in a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who grew up in Sacramento as the son of a powerful Capitol lobbyist. He wrote, “Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

That’s pretty naive, especially for a lobbyist’s kid.

What do you think? If Villaraigosa is elected governor, will he answer the phone whenever Hastings calls? You bet, and when Broad calls, too.

Maybe it’s time to junk all the ineffective campaign contribution limits. Give up the pretense. Just let people donate whatever they want directly to a candidate and require that the contribution be reported immediately to the public.

One thing seems certain: These donations are just the beginning of large-scale independent expenditures in this year’s California elections. Villaraigosa has a lot of catching up to do. He ended 2017 with $5.9 million in the bank. Newsom had $19.5 million.

There’s talk of Villaraigosa backers trying to raise many millions more in so-called I.E. money under no constraints. He’s battling two Republicans for second place in the primary. Finishing runner-up would qualify him for the November runoff, presumably against fellow Democrat Newsom.

Hastings, 57, who once taught high school math in the Peace Corps, has been promoting charter schools for many years. When Villaraigosa was state Assembly speaker in 1998, Hastings led a high-tech coalition that spent $3 million collecting signatures to qualify a ballot measure that would have greatly expanded charter schools.

It never reached the ballot because Villaraigosa, Hastings, the California Teachers Assn. and then-Gov. Pete Wilson compromised on legislation. Everyone was spared a costly campaign fight.

Villaraigosa “was a real catalyst,” Hastings told me back then. “Instead of being angry with us for promoting an initiative, he took the attitude that, ‘You guys must really be frustrated’ ” with public schools.

Villaraigosa began his political career as a teachers union organizer. But after being elected mayor in 2005, he called the union “the largest obstacle to creating quality schools.”

He unsuccessfully tried to seize control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, arguing a dramatic overhaul was needed. He eventually gained control of 18 struggling schools through a nonprofit he founded. He also shaped district policy by helping elect school board allies.

When he became mayor, Villaraigosa told me, there was a 36% graduation rate in the schools he oversaw. When he left, the rate was up to 72%, he added.

“What I’m big on is improving all schools, traditional and chartered,” he said.

I asked Hastings — who’s worth $3.2 billion, according to Forbes — why he thinks Villaraigosa warrants a $7-million donation.

“Most [California] mayors never get that involved in education because it might go wrong and be bad politics,” Hastings replied. “That’s what made me convinced he would be the best education governor.

“It’s about trying to figure out how to make all public schools more flexible, more relevant, a stimulating environment for children. Many are, but many schools are just focused on testing.”

How much are unions to blame? I was surprised at his answer.

“Not much,” he said. “Look at nonunion states. They’re not much better. Unions are not the problem.”

Newsom, who has been endorsed by the teachers union, said he’s getting a bum rap from charter school enthusiasts.

“For 20 years I’ve been supporting high-quality, nonprofit charter schools,” the former San Francisco mayor insisted. “But I believe in accountability and transparency.”

He was upset that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required charter schools to be more transparent.

“The biggest issue in education now is recruiting and retaining quality teachers,” he said. “Teachers are demoralized. It’s going to be my top priority.”

Hastings and Broad have pumped new life into Villaraigosa’s campaign.

And, despite the current cautious rhetoric, the race has become a proxy fight between teachers unions and their charter school critics.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT #iBELIEVE

 

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