The Torlakson name has been a near-constant on the ballots of voters in the San Francisco East Bay, where state schools chief Tom Torlakson got his political start more than three decades ago. Last week, though, the remarkable string of Torlakson victories ended resoundingly.
Mae Cendaña Torlakson, his wife, was trounced by fellow Democrat Tim Grayson after a campaign that attracted more than $3.3 million in outside spending since March by EdVoice, a nonprofit that seeks changes to teacher tenure and other rules.
Grayson’s success was among several legislative victories by candidates who received heavy support from EdVoice and the California Charter Schools Association.
The organizations’ campaign arms, funded by a small, influential circle of wealthy donors around the country, spent at least $8.7 million directly to help elect candidates, all but one of them Democrats in same-party runoffs, in six Assembly districts and two Senate districts in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election.
“We are pleased to see that folks we supported by and large ended up being successful,” said Gary Borden, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, downplaying the impact of money. “California voters did their homework, looked at these races thoughtfully and responded by making well-informed choices.”
When the new Legislature is sworn in next month, its Democratic majority will contain more members than ever who owe their elections at least in part to support from charter schools and EdVoice. The California Teachers Association, meanwhile, made its top electoral priority Proposition 55, the income tax extension on high earners, with billions in proceeds going to shore up public schools.
Teacher unions long have had a dominant role setting the education agenda in a Capitol controlled by labor-friendly Democrats. Yet EdVoice and charter schools back legislation each year meant to improve schools.
Republican lawmakers have been among their strongest allies on an issue that sometimes divides Democrats, many of whom represent urban areas with poor-performing schools. In 2015, for example, a teacher-evaluation bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, backed by EdVoice and charter schools, stalled in its first committee when the CTA opposed it. The panel’s chairman, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, is a strong ally of the union.
Reflecting on the election, Eric Heins, president of the CTA, called the trend “dangerous,” contending in an interview that his group was “swamped” by the torrent of opposition spending on mailers, phone calls and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Top donors to the charter schools association’s outside spending committee this election cycle are Gap co-founder Doris F. Fisher; Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; Carrie W. Penner, the granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton; developer Eli Broad and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The top contributors to EdVoice’s campaign committee are Southern California businessman Bill Bloomfield, venture capitalist Arthur Rock, Penner, and Alice and Jim Walton, relatives of the Wal-Mart founder.
“We can look forward to more of that happening unless we begin to expose where that money is coming from,” Heins said. “This isn’t a popular uprising. It’s a few billionaires (backing their interests in) nonaccountable charters. This is not as they are trying to portray it: a mandate of some kind for charters.”
Still, Heins said he was concerned about the eventual policy effect on incoming freshmen lawmakers backed by the education groups, who can serve a dozen years in office.
“I think ultimately it will have an impact,” he said. “This is a long-term game they are playing. And if the public follows the money – there is a clear agenda.”
The money given for the general election is in addition to the nearly $10 million spent before the June primary in legislative races. EdVoice and charter schools also gave several hundred thousand dollars more to other groups that spent in the races. Just two of their preferred candidates this year lost last week’s election, and those campaigns did not hinge on education policy.
This year’s legislative spending, experts say, suggests that EdVoice and charter schools will be active in future legislative contests as well as in the 2018 races for governor and to replace the termed-out Tom Torlakson.
“I think the strategy was just to put down a marker” for 2018, said Democratic consultant Parke Skelton, who advised Glendale Democrat Laura Friedman in the race for Los Angeles County’s 43rd Assembly District. A charter-school-funded outside spending group spent about $2.4 million this year to help elect Friedman.
“They wanted to send a message that they could be big players, as well,” Skelton added at a recent conference on the California election results.
EdVoice and charter schools spent heavily in an unsuccessful 2014 effort to elect charter schools executive Marshall Tuck as state schools chief. They had more success the following year, when they helped propel Democrat Steve Glazer to victory over heavy opposition from teachers unions and others in the East Bay’s 7th Senate District.
In the race to succeed Torlakson in 2018, Tuck could run again, while potential rivals seen as allied with the teachers union include former Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, outgoing Assemblyman Susan Bonilla of Concord and Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond.
Several Democrats, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Treasurer John Chiang and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, are already running for governor. Delaine Eastin, the former state schools chief, said she plans to pair her run with a plan to fix the state’s ailing schools. In a recent interview, Villaraigosa, a big proponent of charter schools, hinted that he expected heavy opposition spending from the teachers union.
Issues championed by charter schools, EdVoice, or both, could become part of the gubernatorial contest, Republican consultant Rob Stutzman said at the post-election conference.
“This is a secret-sauce issue for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate,” he said.
Some see parallels between the arrival of Grayson, Friedman and the others and the rise in recent years of business-backed Democrats who have helped frame the debate on climate change policy and other issues.
The state’s top-two primary system, in which the two highest finishers, regardless of party, advance to a fall runoff, altered the calculus. Candidates such as Grayson, who can appeal to a wider swath of the district’s moderate electorate, end up in better position in the fall. That means they essentially have to be targeted for defeat in the primary, something Mae Cendaña Torlakson and her supporters failed to accomplish.
“The top-two-primary process has fundamentally changed legislative campaigns, and it’s important to embrace that,” said Leo Wallach of Rally Campaigns, who worked for Grayson and against Torlakson, among several other races.
“Voters have a chance to elect independent-minded candidates who may not fit the typical mold,” he said. “Campaigns have to be more thoughtful about building winning coalitions and targeting each unique portion of the persuadable electorate.”
The dynamics of the races varied, as did the candidates’ fealty to one side or another.
Advocates for changing teacher-employment polices stress that they look less for total compliance than they do for somebody who signals they will look at an issue based on its merits and sometimes go against leaders of their own party.
Some challenge the notion of a landslide. In only the Torlakson-Grayson race did the CTA actively engage, choosing to dedicate resources on the tax measure. Grayson did not conceal his support for charter schools “where they provide a way to ‘tailor’ education to the needs of a community’s students,” as he wrote on his website.
Heins, of the CTA, said he would closely monitor the incoming class of lawmakers.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “You’ve got to watch how they vote and where they put their priorities.”
Charter schools and education groups helped win these races:
Democrat Scott Wiener of San Francisco defeated Jane Kim
Democrat Bill Dodd of Napa defeated Mariko Yamada
Democrat Tim Grayson of Concord defeated Mae Cendaña Torlakson
Democrat Marc Berman of Palo Alto defeated Vicki Veenker
Democrat Anna Caballero of Salinas defeated Karina Alejo
Democrat Laura Friedman of Glendale defeated Ardy Kassakhian
Republican Catharine Baker of Dublin defeated Cheryl Cook-Kallio
Where their preferred candidates lost:
Democrat Ash Kalra of San Jose defeated Madison Nguyen
Democrat Eloise Reyes of Colton defeated Cheryl Brown