One big lesson to draw from Tuesday's special election to fill an empty school board seat: The public school employees unions in Dallas are weak tea, indeed, when it comes to any kind of a shootout at the polls. Take away a couple of pissed-off rich supporters with axes to grind, and teachers union candidate Kristi Lara was always high and dry without a paddle.
For the unions, this was all about getting rid of Mike Miles, the school superintendent. Miles is pushing a program of reforms which would entail doing away with the time-honored seniority pay scale for teachers in favor of some form of merit pay. The unions hoped Lara, considered a lock-cinch vote to fire Miles, would join four other anti-Miles votes on the nine-member board and provide the edge needed to send him packing before merit pay could become reality.
Miguel Solis, her opponent, was favored and heavily supported by the school reform crowd who want to keep Miles in his chair. Solis beat Lara Tuesday two to one in a drubbing that involved fewer than 1,300 votes.
It was always a given that Solis would have way more money to spend than Lara, but in a tiny turn-out election like this one money is not necessarily the deciding factor. What the unions promised Lara was more about boots on the ground and technical electoral know-how -- knocking doors, getting people to vote early and loading the old folks onto vans on vote day. To whatever extent any of that really got done, it was notably ineffectual, according to the final turnout and tally. Meanwhile, if it hadn't been for those two pissed off rich people with grudges, Lara would barely have had enough campaign money to cover a good month's cell phone bill.
In the two periodic finance reports filed by both campaigns so far, Solis showed contributions at eight times the amount raised by Lara -- $80,962 to $9,820. Of Lara's relatively paltry showing in cash donations, 60 percent came from the two pissed people, attorney Lisa Blue and retired real estate tycoon Don Williams.
Blue was Lara's lawyer in a failed lawsuit alleging Solis had not met residency requirements for school trustee candidates. That suit sought $100,000 from Solis and the school district. Williams is furious with Superintendent Miles, meanwhile, because Miles ditched an educational program that Williams and his wife were championing.
There's an even sadder note in all this. A week ago I called Lara for comment on a blog item I was preparing about her lawsuit. She called me back three days later to ask if it was too late to comment. I said it was, given that the item in question had been published three days prior, which she seemed not to know. Hey, people get busy, especially when they are running for office.
I like Lara. She's smart and idealistic, an Occupy Wall Street type, which is my type. But when she called, I did attempt to chat her up a bit about Lisa Blue and the lawsuit.
Blue is about as big a gorilla as exists anywhere in the Texas political landscape, and she's one of the larger gorillas in the nation. She's the widow of the late Fred Baron, best known for paying off Rielle Hunter, the girlfriend who crashed John Edwards' presidential campaign.
When Lara and I chatted about it, she conceded to me that she really didn't know who Lisa Blue was when Blue first turned up offering pro bono legal services, the bill for which I assume we will see in some later accounting. We never got to the topic of Don Williams and whether Lara knew him from Adam before he turned up in her life.
So here's my bottom of the page accounting of it all. The teachers unions who promised Lara all this big political organization and know-how ended up not delivering anything big enough to worry about. The two pissed off rich people really only got Lara switched off her campaign track and sidelined in a weak-ass nutty lawsuit that was never going anywhere anyway and made her look like she was trying to gouge the school district.
Solis had big-dog contributors, too -- 10 grand from two members of the Crow (real estate) family, $7,400 in cash and in-kind contributions from Container Store co-founder Garrett Boone. But Solis' money came from 70 different sources, both known Republicans and known Democrats. Lara's money came from 24 sources that looked like a handful of personal friends, the unions and the two pissed people.
None of this is reason either to gloat or to malign Lara. She's an interesting and thoughtful person whom we should hope to see again in local politics. Next time around she needs to be more careful not to get carried off into the jungle by strange gorillas. But this is how we learn.
Solis is a star. He's bright, young, a coherent thinker and speaker, and he already knows how to reach across partisan lines and tie together coalitions based on ideas.
But bottom-bottom line? This little election showed there is no reason to fear or revere the great and terrible status quo in Dallas on public school issues. They ain't that status. They ain't that quo. They can be beat, in other words, and all it takes is the doing.
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