L.A.’s Ugly School Board Election Proves That Big Money Trumps All

This is how democracy works in the post Citizens United era.
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Last week marked the end of most expensive School Board race in American history, with ultra-wealthy individuals, special interest groups and unions spending over $8 million in the contest between challenger Nick Melvoin and incumbent Steve Zimmer for LAUSD’s 4th District seat. Though Melvoin emerged victorious to tip the balance of the School Board in favor of charter schools, the real story of the race is the obscene impact of big money on a local election.

Moneyed interests had far more influence over the race than even the candidates themselves. Not only does this election serve as Exhibit A in the case against the Supreme­ Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision and similar cases, but it reveals just how flawed the logic behind the Supreme Court’s infamous decision actually was.

One of the most common defenses of Citizens United, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, is that more speech in politics is a good thing. Or as the Court stated, limiting the amount of money an individual or group can spend during a campaign “necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

The Court’s logic makes it sound like corporations, wealthy individuals, and unions are wise philosophers who have valuable knowledge to impart to the electorate and that reasonable limits on campaign spending would deprive voters of critical information. But the “expression” by big money in the LAUSD race more closely resembled a foul-mouthed broken record than a philosopher’s tome.

Billionaire Eli Broad, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Walmart’s Walton family, and other prominent Republicans financed a relentlessly negative campaign against Zimmer that accused him of protecting pedophiles and compared him to a convicted murderer. Unions tried to portray Melvoin, a Democrat, as being cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Both candidates denounced the negativity but they were also powerless to stop it. Voters unfortunate enough to live in LAUSD District 4 were caught in the middle.

Rather than offering voters valuable information on complex issues, big money overwhelmed voters with a deluge of misleading mailers, sometimes many per day. A variety of issues explored in depth? Not even close. This election was a slugfest between powerful interests that appealed to the lowest common denominator—Melvoin and his over $5 million from charter school supporters defeated Zimmer and his $2 million plus from unions. This is how democracy works in the post Citizens United era. It is time for California’s Congressional representatives to take heed.

Last November Californians voted in favor of Prop 59, a ballot initiative that called on our elected officials to do everything in their power, including passing a constitutional amendment, to overturn Citizens United. Though Prop 59 expressed a nice sentiment it was also non-binding and thus far, California’s Congressional delegation has not followed it up with any meaningful action. Until they do, voters in California and across the country will not have much to look forward to.

The wealthy charter school supporters who funded Melvoin’s successful campaign have set a disturbing standard for others with deep pockets to emulate. Find a candidate who aligns with your interests, outspend your opponent’s backers by a few million, and watch government bend to your will. It is not the political process our founding fathers envisioned but until we get big money out of politics, it’s the one we’ve got.

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