Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Election of the Century: Midday Update

It's raining here today -- or it's at least drizzly and cold today. Between that and the schumcky choices we have for Community College Board of Trustees, it's almost like God doesn't want us to vote at all.

But my polling place is at a local temple, the house of the chosen people. And I don't want to make a choice.

Just before 10:00 a.m., three hours after the polls had opened, I wandered into this downstairs room at the temple. There were six pollworkers inside, which, coincidentally, was two less than the number of voters who'd come in to vote that morning. (I was all set to take a picture of the desolation, but was quickly told photos were forbidden.)

First I had to look at a map to find out if I lived in the red section of my precinct or the blue section. Then I had to go to the right table to sign in. A nice senior citizen woman flipped through page after unsigned page to find my name. She turned the book around and I signed next to my name. Then I was given a ballot and invited to use any booth.

"Booth" is a charitable word; each one is more like a folding podium with a little contraption where you slide your ballot in until it's snug over two pegs, then you "ink" the bubbles next to the candidates whose names appear in the built-in ballot, the ballot that looks identical to the one we get in the mail. The one with two candidates.

Ink one bubble.

I slid the ballot in. Watched two of the ballot's 336 little circles appear next to Scott Svonkin and Lydia Gutierrez. My ink-a-vote pen still had its cap on.

I pulled my ballot out. Then I pulled two black markers out of my backpack -- a thin one and a thick one. I seriously considered using the thick one to write NEITHER in big letters across the bubbles. But that seemed too anti-establishment. After all, this isn't the 1960s.

During all this, I kept waiting for some pollworker to come up to me and ask me if I had a problem, since it was taking me so long to pick one person. But they were absorbed in a conversation. One worker, an authoritative-sounding type who seemed to be a pollworking veteran, was on the phone with a pollworker (yes, apparently SEVEN people were scheduled to be there) who said she was going to be late. The veteran told her not to bother coming since they didn't need the help.

"Who was that?" asked one man.

"[Name] who worked here before," said the veteran.

"Who's that?"

"Big black woman."

"Oh, yeah. Her."

Then she came over to tell the assembled workers the whole story about how [name] was a notorious flake. A college girl got up from her history book and passed by me to do something. She didn't ask if I was having a problem.

Finally, I stepped up to the table and asked, "What do I do if I don't want to vote for either of these people?" The senior citizen looked up from her paperback and laughed.

The veteran told me I could write "neither" in the write-in section of the ballot.

So I whipped out my Sharpie and did just that.

"Black marker. That's bold," said the man.

I gotta be me.

Then the veteran told me to tear off the top. I tore at the wrong perforation, which caused at least two pollworkers to shriek.

I ruined my ballot.

I asked for another ballot; they said that wouldn't be necessary. "Gee, don't tell me my 'neither' vote isn't going to count."

"No, no," said the veteran. "We put the whole thing into that white bin, where the write-in ballots go."

Then at the door,  I ended up chatting with the whole room for a moment. I found out a couple of tidbits. First off, we're having another election in June.


The reason they couldn't combine this election with the next one is because runoffs, by rule, must be held within a maximum number of days after the general election that caused them. Folding this election into the June election would violate that.

As we soaked in the disgust of that one, the election veteran said they'd be lucky to get 25 voters today. They indulged my request to see how many registered voters were listed in their rolls for this precinct. About 3,900.

In other words, the pollworker's educated guess projected a voter turnout of about two-thirds of one percent.

And this is for a runoff that's at least partly a referendum on wasteful spending.

The Election of the Century, Part 4: My Endorsement

This is becoming clearer.

For a guy whom others claim is a jerk, Scott Svonkin has an awful lot of support. People with names like David Allgood and Sweet Alice Harris must know something about Svonkin that I don't know. Apparently, I'll never know. They didn't reply to my email.

Then there was the city's League of Conservation Voters. Their own website goes into some detail about how to get an endorsement from them. So I emailed their president, asking him why he endorsed Svonkin and if Svonkin had to run the LALCV's endorsement gauntlet. Never heard back.

One of Svonkin's alleged supporters is Matt Stadtler, a fellow school board member who helped remove Svonkin from his role as vice president of the Board. I emailed him to ask him if he still endorses Svonkin. Never heard back from him, either.

Hardly anyone got back to me. And I must have emailed 40 people. Maybe I should have emailed asking for an actual endorsement. From the looks of Svonkin's website, they're not hard to get.

I got exactly two responses. One was from an influential Realtor who said he's known Svonkin for 20 years and that he'd been very helpful to him while he (Svonkin) was working for Sheriff Lee Baca and City Councilman Paul Koretz. The other reply was from my very own rep on the County Board of Supervisors, Zev Yaroslavsky. (Good ol' Zev seems to have time for everything and everyone. He should make a good mayor someday.) Yaroslavsky's known Svonkin for over 20 years, calls him "able and committed," and that's no doubt part of the reason why he appointed him to the L.A. County Insurance Commission, where he's "served with distinction."

Okay, so Svonkin's one helluva guy. Or maybe he's complex. I don't doubt these testimonials, but still, they don't address the criticisms of Svonkin that I found in the LA Weekly articles. The articles had dozens of follow-up comments from Svonkin supporters, some trashing the Weekly for muckraking, some accusing the paper of showing its anti-union bias, and some suggesting the reporter was an intern. But none of them claimed the stories were untrue. In fact, I found only one source to refute the critcisms.

Scott Svonkin.

In an article on the website for the California Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Svonkin goes point by point on every one of the Weekly's attacks, flatly denying all of them. His biggest admissions are that he's not perfect and that he's chubby.



Some say he's a jerk; some say he's a swell guy. One reporter cites his fiscal irresponsibility; he denies it.


Still hates gay people.


Gee, what swell choices.

On the one hand, I don't want an imperfect chubby guy wasting bond money, which his alliances and history suggest he'll do. On the other hand, I don't want a gay-hater developing policy and approving strategy at our community colleges -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

I have a civic duty to vote, but whom do you pick when you don't like anyone?

I have a standing rule for all elections: Never vote for an incumbent. It only encourages them.

But neither candidate is an incumbent.

I got it. A write-in candidate!

Nope. This is a runoff. We have two choices. That's it.

So what's the answer?

There are two answers.

The first answer is to go to your polling place and follow your conscience. My conscience is yelling at me to write "NEITHER" on the ballot with a thick black marker. A smelly one.

The second answer is to vote two months ago when we had a bunch of other choices, thus keeping these two out of contention.

We're going to blow it today. Next time you see a community college student, apologize to them.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Election of the Century, Part 3

Okay, so I checked out Scott Svonkin, the first-place finisher in the battle for Community College Board, Trustee Number Five, in the last post. Claims to be big on fiscal oversight, evidence to the contrary; a number of witnesses have stepped forward to say he's a douchebag. Got it.

Time for some attention to be paid to the second-place finisher, Lydia Gutierrez.

Long history working in education, L.A. roots go back generations, yadda yadda. Very nice. And a buttload of endorsements. My God, this woman has more endorsements than Scott Svonkin. First on her list? Sharon Nolan of the Abalone Cove Landslide Abatement District. I don't believe it. She's playing the Abalone Cove Landslide Abatement District card right up front. This Gutierrez woman is not fucking around.

She's also got a bunch of officials from San Gabriel. This is not an accident. San Gabriel is Svonkin's stomping ground, where the majority of voters has grown to detest him.

Ah, the ugly business of politics.

But there's something else curious about her list of endorsers. At first I thought it was the lack of big names, but that's not really the issue.

No one has any party affiliation. No "Democrat" or "Republican" or any of their variations appear on her list. Not once. Nor does she mention any party affiliation in her bio. Strange.

What is she? A Whig?

A little Internet sleuthing turned up the truth: She's a Republican. Now, since the Community College Board of Trustees is a non-partisan group, there's no requirement to state party affiliation. Her exclusion of that information is understandable in a liberal place like L.A. I mean, we do elect some Republicans, but not often.

And Republicans are supposed to be big on fiscal responsibility, if I still believe that. And she's largely self-financed her campaign, so she's not beholden to many backers.

This is making sense. I rather like this woman.

Oh, wait. There is one more thing.

She hates homosexuals.

She was a proponent of Proposition 8. That's the one that excluded gay people from an equal chance at the misery of marriage that straight people take for granted.

She also said that the California Teachers' Association's endorsement of a state bill proposing a Harvey Milk Day is "offensive to the families of her students." (To add context, in that very complaint, she did cite that Cesar Chavez has done more for California's working class than Harvey Milk, but failed to mention that we already have a Cesar Chavez Day -- as well as whether or not the CTA endorsed the bill that created it in 2000.)

And last year, the CTA supported a bill that would allow minors to seek mental health assistance without parental consent. The crux of this bill was to help prevent suicides by tormented LGBT teens. (Governor Schwarzenegger mercifully signed it into law.) But guess which family values teacher didn't want to make it easier for suicidally depressed teens to get help?


More research revealed that one of her endorsers, a fellow named Ben Lopez, is a high muckety-muck in the California Republican Assembly. This far-right bunch advocates far more than just lower taxes and free enterprise. Terms like "Creator" and "Judeo-Christian Foundation" and "Holy Scriptures" are right up at the top of their page. After seeing that, I wasn't surprised to read that they believe in the traditional American family, the one-man-one-woman marriage kind. (No word on whether or not they plan to outlaw divorce or take away a woman's right to vote.)

I also wasn't surprised that she doesn't list Ben Lopez as a member of this group, but rather as merely a "Community Activist."


This woman who traveled to Colombia off and on for years to help orphans -- all on her own dime -- discriminates against gay people.

So those are our choices. An attitude case who's so in bed with big labor that it doesn't appear that he'll to anything to curb spending versus a goddamn bigot.

Oh, the ugly business of politics.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

The Election of the Century, Part 2

I was only joking a little when I went on about the importance of the runoff election for a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, but I didn't realize how much I was joking.

The initial shock was over the fact that the registrar's office printed up hundreds of thousands of ballots for an election with only one item. In many districts, there are no other seats up for grabs, nor any propositions, for which Californians have become an international punch line.

So why give a shit?

I was reminded, after doing a little research, that the L.A. Times actually assigned one of its few remaining reporters to uncover the huge amounts of wasteful spending on boondoggle projects at our community colleges in recent years. Notable among them was a science facility at Valley College where some hot water handles were accidentally installed on cold water taps and vice versa, the eye-washing station had dirty water coming out of it, making it useless for eye-washing, and climate control thermostats went haywire, killing some animals in a lab.

In an earlier era, that sort of story would come and go without much thought. But nowadays, since every person, company, and government is broke, money actually means something to people.

Well, that's a good enough reason to vote. Count me in.

Now, what's the difference between these two politicians?

The guy who finished in first place, Scott Svonkin, believes in a bunch of stuff, including protecting taxpayers and "auditing all areas to find savings." This would not explain the fresh story in LA Weekly that told of his insistence that projects not be burdened with financial oversight. One such project was a mammoth solar panel project in the San Gabriel School District, where Svonkin serves as a board member. He insisted that the project would save the district "millions." The school board president refuted his claim, pointing out the mathematical impossibility of reducing an electric bill by millions when they don't spend that much on electricity in the first place.

Svonkin also believes he's an important person. He wishes to be addressed as "the Honorable Scott Svonkin," which already makes him a little douchey. He also believes, if he knows what's on his website, that he's still serving as vice president of the San Gabriel School District, even though he was stripped of that title five months ago. This would make him delusional as well.

He's also got such a long trail of stories of bullying and grandstanding behind him that it's developed into what I'd fairly describe as a reputation. One night during a board meeting, he not only munched on a sandwich in the middle of it, but decided to start shouting at another member mid-chew, food flying everywhere.

Douchey, delusional, and disgusting. Naturally, he's endorsed by every city and state leader in the Democratic party. I mean, EVERY ONE OF THEM: half the California Democrats in Congress, former governor Gray Davis, assemblymen, assemblywomen, state senators, county sheriff, county supervisors, city council members, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Democratic Party, Los Angeles County Young Democrats, San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, Young Latino Democrats of the San Fernando Valley, People's Front of Judea, Judean People's Front, you name it. He's also got The Sierra Club, The Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper, and just about every labor union and guild in town.

Strangely absent were the endorsements of any teachers unions.

He's also supported by a long list of individuals, including numerous community leaders, chairmen of local organizations, CEOs of local businesses, and Shelly Levy and Jeff Schwartz, people with no titles at all. I think they should ask Svonkin to address them as "the Honorable," at least.

So how does a purported douchebag get so much endorsing? And does a guy who claims to believe in fiscal oversight fight it when it's demanded?

I intend to find out.