Brutal campaign saw $8 million in outside spending by charter and union groups

By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker

Nick Melvoin
Photo by Maria Martin

The most expensive LAUSD board contest in history — and quite possibly also the ugliest — ended Tuesday night with Westside, Hollywood and San Fernando Valley voters choosing to replace two-term incumbent Steve Zimmer with challenger Nick Melvoin.

Melvoin, 31, received 30,696 votes (57.4% support) to Zimmer’s 22,766 votes, according to a Wednesday tally by the Los Angeles City Clerk’s Office.

“I’m excited, I’m grateful, I’m humbled, and now we have a lot of work to do — not only improving outcomes for kids, but also healing some of the divides this campaign exposed,” Melvoin said.

Both men are former LAUSD teachers, but Melvoin received heavy financial support from charter school advocates, while Zimmer had the backing of the teachers union.

What emerged was a proxy war between pro-charter and pro-union groups, with outside groups not controlled by the candidates spending more than $8.2 million (as of May 10) to influence voters through negative and often misleading political mail.

With just over 53,000 ballots cast, that $8.2 million breaks down to about $150 per actual vote.

The candidates themselves raised just over $1.1 million combined, making it difficult to get their own messages across.

But all of that outside spending did play out in Melvoin’s favor, with groups spending nearly $2.5 million to support Melvoin and nearly $3.4 million to oppose Zimmer as of the May 10 reporting deadline, according to Los Angeles Ethics Commission records.

Much of that 70-30 independent expenditure advantage favoring Melvoin came through major contributions from the likes of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings.

Melvoin’s victory and that of newcomer Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in a concurrent school board race wrests future control of the LAUSD Board of Education away from a current majority that tends to be more in sync with the teacher’s union. (The City Clerk reported a voter turnout of 9.5% for both LAUSD races, but only 25,410 people cast a ballot in the contest across town.)

But those who equate Melvoin’s victory to a charter school takeover of LAUSD should think again, Melvoin cautioned Wednesday morning.

“I look forward to proving them wrong,” said Melvoin, adding he hopes to sit down with some of those who did not vote for him in order to build common ground.

Zimmer, who took the brunt of attack ads throughout the campaign, lamented the vicious attack ads funded by charter-aligned groups.

“This race was never just about me,” Zimmer said the weekend before Election Day. “In this election, the dreams of our children — all of our children — should be more important than lies. Dreams should be more powerful than money.”

Zimmer did not call Melvoin to concede the race on Tuesday night, but did attempt to console supporters who had gathered at his campaign headquarters in Mar Vista.

“I might not have been successful tonight, but we the teachers, we the students, we the families of this district — we are not a failure,” Zimmer said.