I teach public school in L.A. So on those rare occasions when I am invited out, it's usually to march in a picket line in front of a government building.
Until recently I also had never been invited to a political fundraiser -- other than being asked to dine with the president and Michelle, but that invite was predicated upon my sending several thousand dollars to the Democratic National Committee and hoping I won the raffle.
But my friend Harriet Zaretsky, the mother of my beloved student, the late Dillon Henry, co-chaired a fundraiser for Eric Garcetti for mayor, and she included me on the guest list. I was so excited to see how politics works up close that I hit "attend" on my evite before reading the particulars.
Politically speaking I'm residing in my Post-Obama Blues Period. Not only have I abandoned all hope that President Obama can bring the type of change he campaigned on in 2008, but I have come to believe that our country, on the national level, is ungovernable. Some in the House of Representatives seem to have been sent to D.C. to defend the Confederacy, and those in the middle-right and middle-left of both parties seem to answer only to the one-tenth of the one-percenters who finance their campaigns. Still, this was about a local race and I'm enough of an optimist to believe a vote matters. Besides, I was curious.
So on the night of the fundraiser my wife, Amy, and I pulled off Sunset Boulevard near Mandeville Canyon and followed the crowd walking towards a plot of land that reminded me of the spread the Cartwrights owned in Bonanza.
"Who lives on this many acres in L.A.?" I asked.
"People who throw fundraisers for mayoral candidates," Amy said.
We walked past the corral and the stables and into a courtyard the size of a small Connecticut town. Just outside the house, a chef was sliding a hot pizza out of the outdoor brick oven.
Inside, two smiling, well-dressed 20-something women holding clipboards, greeted us. Both were much better looking and more polite than the legion of clipboard hawks who regularly ambush me in the Trader Joe's parking lot.
"You can fill out your donation form here or in the den," one of the young women said.
I headed toward the den. I needed privacy for this. I was preparing to write a check to "Eric Garcetti for Mayor" and all I knew about him was that he looked a lot like Steve Carell in Evan Almighty.
The donation line at the top of the form read:
$1,300, $1,000, $750, $500, $250, Other.
I was drawn to Other.
As I tried to decide how much to donate, I peeked at the adjoining dining room and spotted a buffet table piled with lox and bagels, hand-crafted pizzas straight from the outdoor oven, assorted salads, cheese trays, mini-quesadillas, a pastry cart thick with cookies and chocolates, and a well-stocked bar. I figured I'd easily wolf down $25 worth of food; throw in tax and tip and well, I couldn't donate less than I ate. How would that look?
I handed over my check and followed Amy around the house because she's adept at socializing and I'm adept at standing off to the side having no idea what to say.
Somewhere between my first and second slices of pizza Eric Garcetti was introduced to the 50 or 60 people who had come to hear him.
When it comes to listening to political speeches, I pretty quickly become ADD, but for the next 30 minutes as Garcetti spoke and answered questions I tuned in to his every word. He wasn't promising the moon. In fact, as far as I could tell Candidate Garcetti wasn't promising anything other than to do as mayor what he had done as President of L.A.'s City Council -- listen to his constituents, to his fellow council members, to experts in their fields and try to forge alliances and cut deals that made L.A. a better place.
I learned that as a city council member Garcetti tripled the number of parks from 16 to 48 in his poor and working class district that stretches from Hollywood to near downtown. He insisted that everyone who works for him uses public transportation or a bike or walks or telecommutes to work once a week to cut down on traffic and smog. And as a councilman when he learned that 30 percent of the people driving around Hollywood were looking for parking spaces he hired a computer techie to develop an app that would pinpoint where the available street parking was in Hollywood. Mid-sentence, Garcetti whipped out his cellphone, hit a few buttons and announced, "At this moment there are two available parking spaces on the corner of Hollywood and Ivar."
That alone might have sold me, but then a woman asked what he felt could be done to improve our public schools, and I held my breath, anticipating the oh-so-popular and absurd mantra, "I'd fire all the bad teachers."
I grabbed Amy's hand when Garcetti answered, "We need to stop bashing teachers." He went on. Scapegoating, he said, is not the way to improve public education. And neither is privatizing the LAUSD. Some charter schools work well, he said, some don't.
I was stunned. Garcetti didn't sound like our current mayor who fought like hell to liquidate the Board of Education and take over the LAUSD, only to wind up controlling 10 schools which, after three years under his stewardship, scored significantly lower than did District schools. Nor did Garcetti sound like scores of Democratic mayors and Republican governors who want us to believe their hearts are bleeding over the education of America's poorest children when, in truth, they have a rather different agenda.
Does anyone really believe that this decade-long standardized testing craze, the war on public school teachers and the takeover of "failed schools" is anything other than a way to destroy teacher unions?
Does anyone really believe this so-called education reform moment has anything do with leveling the educational playing field for kids who were born in the wrong zip codes? It's pretty clear what's really at stake: It's the markets for politicians' billionaire backers.
Three of the staunchest supporters of charter school reform are Bill Gates, Michael Dell and the Walton Family, which, when I studied the issue, got me calculating. There are 50 million public school students in America, and right there you've got the potential for 50 million laptop sales, billions in software programs for those computers, trillions of dollars for myriad Wal-Mart crap. All on the public dime.
That's the dirty secret most politicians hide behind those speeches about all the bad teachers.
But Eric Garcetti talked with passion and intelligence about the fact that the failure of our public school system is not black and white. Garcetti talked about everyone coming to the table -- about business people and administrators and teachers each having some answers. He wants to listen to everyone and try to broker deals to benefit students.
He sounded positively revolutionary, given the climate.
And as the evening wound down, all I wanted was to tell my colleagues to check out Garcetti for mayor. That and maybe pocket another slice of pizza for the ride home.
After all, I paid for it.