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In the end, frontrunners benefited from record spending in MPS board race

Rebecca Gagnon

At about 9:25 Tuesday night the number of precincts reporting in the Minneapolis School Board race jumped, in a single digital gulp, from 86 of 127 to 126 of 127. In seconds, the most expensive, most ripped-from-the-headlines, most divisive contest in the history of the board was over.

Incumbent Rebecca Gagnon and former City Council Member Don Samuels won the four-way race for two at-large board seats chosen via a citywide election. Until the mathematical margin had been reached, few were willing to predict how the race would come out.

The heartbreak was acute at the warehouse district offices of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), where supporters of Iris Altamirano, narrowly edged out of victory, arrayed themselves in a circle around her.

A very close race

A woman who worked in the fields in Texas at the age of 9 and went on to earn an Ivy League degree, Altamirano had come within 2 percentage points of a seat. This despite her opponents’ much higher name recognition and political skullduggery that would send Machiavelli scuttling back to his crypt for safety.

At least half a million dollars had been spent to influence the race, and it wasn’t clear that Altamirano benefited. In the run-up to the election, the DFL had threatened to pull the labor-financed campaign on her behalf.

And a last-minute expenditure by an independent group that received six-figure donations from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other education reform proponents forced her to combat an avalanche of negative publicity.

“We did drive a good conversation,” Altamirano told some 30 supporters. “I was hoping we could say we changed the game, but the game was rigged.”

The candidate was crying, and so were most of her supporters, including a Who’s Who of the Twin Cities Latino community. Outgoing board member Alberto Monserrate stood to one side, Minneapolis DFL Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray to the other. Around them were teachers and the security guards and janitors the SEIU represents.

“The images we were seeing were dollar signs,” continued Altamirano. “But we represented janitors’ kids.”

Until the 126th precinct was counted, it seemed as if the SEIU political organizer might win enough support from the “camps” supporting Samuels and Gagnon to win a board seat.

In a polarized race she spoke compellingly of the need to balance the benefits of an organized and protected teacher corps and the ways in which traditional labor politics fail black and brown children.

While Altamirano’s supporters consoled one another, five victory parties were under way. In the board’s geographic District 1, incumbent Jenny Arneson ran unchallenged. In District 2, Siad Ali also ran unopposed. In District 5, Nelson Inz bested Jay Larson in a contest that for all practical purposes was settled at the DFL endorsing convention last May.

Conventional wisdom — which has frequently proven wrong when it comes to education — says that the 2014 election created a five-member majority on the nine-member board that will not be aggressive in pushing for the reforms that district administrators and education policy leaders believe will close the academic achievement gap.

Don Samuels

The new board will renegotiate the district’s teacher contract, which has been a barrier to many of the changes sought by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s executive team. The leaders have been swimming upstream to implement changes that could help close some of the nation’s widest racial gaps.

Beyond the contract, however, MPS is likely to be confronted with even thornier questions about the district’s willingness to continue sponsoring charter and site-governed schools, to make a radical shift in how money follows students and to change aspects of the teaching culture.

The tug-of-war over the proposed changes has dogged the district for the better part of a decade, with political will among board members to push change waxing and waning. Because the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) has traditionally controlled the endorsing process in a one-party town, money has accompanied the tensions.

In 2010, spending on one race topped $36,000. In 2012, an ugly contest between a former Teach for America teacher — perceived because of his résumé as a change agent — and a woman who received heavy teacher union backing nearly doubled the past cycle’s spending.

This year, the budget for the Minneapolis DFL’s coordinated campaign was said to be $140,000. Add to that spending by the state party and the MFT, as well as the loan of staff by the state teachers union. Much of the money came from the MFT’s national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

Traceable spending by the party and labor likely topped $250,000. Gagnon enjoyed the same union-funded support even though she chose not to seek labor endorsements.

And candidates for contested seats raised record war chests.

Independent spending likely topped $300,000

Three organizations raised funds and made independent expenditures — spending to influence an election that is not coordinated with or even communicated to candidates. Those expenditures likely topped $300,000.

Iris Altamirano

As the No. 3 finisher in the August primary, Altamirano needed to campaign for support among voters who backed both frontrunners. The city DFL threatened to pull its financial support for her campaign after Altamirano attended events where Samuels was present.

No sooner had that tempest died down than Altamirano was forced to decry a negative campaign mailer paid for by one of the independent expenditure groups criticizing Gagnon.

“This proves what I have been saying,” she said at a press conference outside the heavily Latino Green Central Elementary a few days before the election. “We desperately need a new conversation about education in this community.”

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/05/2014 - 09:29 am.

    Big spending

    It’s no mystery why so much was invested in this election. Schools–especially charter schools–are becoming important profit centers for American finance. It’s a safe investment, as it can be tarted up to look like some kind of reform, and after all, “it’s for the kids!!!”

    You can’t do that with fracking.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/05/2014 - 12:52 pm.

    Her own fault

    Altamirano lost because she aligned herself with Don Samuels and the corporate “reformers.” It seems she realized her mistake and tried to distance herself toward the end, but it was too late – she lost the support of too many DFLers and teacher supporters. Gagnon finished first in the primary and first in the general and the race for the second seat was between Altamirano and Samuels. Money didn’t defeat her, poor judgment did. The lesson is don’t screw over the people who backed you.

  3. Submitted by Will Stancil on 11/05/2014 - 01:06 pm.

    This is pure revisionist history

    It’s bizarre to paint Altamirano as a hapless innocent, rather than the primary agent of her own undoing. I particularly like how, in one breath, a DFL’s threat to pull financing is depicted as a disadvantage for her, and then in the next, the extraordinary amount of out-of-state money supporting her campaign is… also depicted as a disadvantage for her.

    Anyway, you don’t need a Cornell degree to see why Altamirano lost: she decided early on she was running against Gagnon instead of Samuels, and distanced herself from her former supporters. (I’m sure the staggering sums that conveniently materialize to back reformers had nothing to do with this decision.) Turns out she was wrong: Samuels was a weak second and her main competition all along. The loss was almost entirely self-inflicted — if she’d stuck to her original positions, she’d probably be on the school board today.

  4. Submitted by Patty Wycoff on 11/05/2014 - 09:51 pm.

    First time I did not vote for DFL endorsed woman.

    November 5, 2014
    An open letter to Iris Altamirano

    Dear Iris:

    Don’t let your third place finish in the MPS school board race get you down. Truly. You came within a couple of percentage points of coming in second (and thus securing the other open at-large board seat) in a pretty close race. You are destined for a productive and fulfilling public service life, if you so choose. It wouldn’t surprise me if you run for school board again, or even city council.

    But, if you decide to run for school board in two years, you need to choose a side. You tried to tap your experience as a community organizer and be the bridge builder between reform and unions, public/community schools and charter schools. And the lesson is that you can’t. When you receive the privilege and resources of the DFL endorsement (plus other union backing), that means you have to stand for the L in the DFL – labor. Once you said you were open to reform and charters, that means that you are going to have to fight the public school teachers and their union, because reducing what remains of union influence in public schools is central to the agenda of education reform (One example from billionaire reform backer Eli Broad). Had you decided to pull back from charters, you would have received more votes from someone like me. I typically vote the DFL line, but I voted for Ira Jourdain fully aware he was a longshot and also lacking in the same bureaucratic experience as you do. And you might have won.

    But. I could not vote for someone who was trying to have her proverbial cake and eat it, too.

    And maybe if you run and you need to choose a side, you will choose reform. There are obvious up-sides, especially from the money angle. Don’t doubt for a minute that the billionaires will shirk from giving to MPEF or a similar PAC in the Minneapolis school board race in two years. They will be back and they will probably up the ante. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next race went to $700,000 or a million. But if you choose reform, you have to believe in it fully, like Don Smauels does, and you don’t get to ask for DFL endorsements anymore.

    And FWIW, two key pointers as you move forward:

    1. You have a great story to share and tell. It is truly inspiring to see and hear from a smart Latina who came from a poor, working class family, worked hard in her mostly Spanish speaking public school, and went to Cornell. You need to tell that story to the kids in priority schools in Minneapolis. Visit them. THEY need to hear about how you made it to Cornell against the odds. They need to see your success. But with the parents and teachers you need to talk more about your success beyond Cornell. Your Cornell education is something to be proud of, but it is your crutch.

    2, Your community organizing background is valuable, but what is more valuable as a governing, elected school board member (or for any local city official) is someone who can read and understand complex budgets. Find a major nonprofit group in town and insist on getting on their board, and then serve on their finance committee. (Maybe RT can help, especially if you opt for reform). Nonprofits need more diversity on their boards, and you need to be able to talk about your experience with budgets if you want to hold a high profile local elected office.

    You will go far in public service, Iris. But you have to take a stand when it comes to our children. Back charters, or back community schools. You can’t do both.



    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/06/2014 - 10:37 am.


      Extremely well said. Its a real shame you didn’t win your school board race. I hope you run again.

    • Submitted by Crystal Brakke on 11/07/2014 - 09:56 am.

      Another perspective

      As one more example of just how wildly opinions vary, I found this letter to be offensive–patriarchal, tone deaf, and rooted in the hype-over-facts that unfortunately characterized this race. Myself and a number of others commented on the blog itself in more detail about why this particular “open letter” was so concerning.


      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/07/2014 - 12:33 pm.

        Oh the humanity!

        I followed your link and it led me to her blog being trolled by a handful of hard core corporate “reformers” who, unsurprisingly (especially since some of them are actually paid to do this), were full of outrage.

        The funny part is that this open letter doesn’t even really take a side – it just explains what happened. And that analysis was spot on. Altamirano sought and received the DFL endorsement. She then spurned her fellow DFL-endorsee and appeared with a non-endorsed candidate. An astronomical among of money was poured into the race from corprate “reform” groups attacking her co-DFL endorsee and supporting her. I know a lot of DFLers, who like the author, didn’t vote for her for that reason. If Altamirano had simply lived up to the promises she made in securing the DFL endorsement, she would have been elected to the school board. She broke those promises and lost.

        My impression is that Altamirano was not comfortable with the support she got from the “reformers,” especially the sleazy negative ads that were run against Gagnon. I don’t think she is a bought-and-paid-for tool of the “reformers” like Samuels or Josh Reimnitz. That’s why the author wrote a letter to her and not to Don Samuels. She may have something to contribute and may learn from her mistakes. Let’s hope she learns the right lessons.

        • Submitted by Crystal Brakke on 11/07/2014 - 03:45 pm.

          There you go again

          Telling her what lessons are “right,” what she should be learning. And then, just maybe then, she might have something to contribute?

          That’s what I’m bothered by. And yeah, maybe even outraged by the notion that a white person is yet again telling this “smart Latina” (let me know the last time someone was described as a “smart White”) how she should talk about her college degree, that she should go spend some time on boards to study up, and which schools in Minneapolis she should visit. Well, that and the hypocrisy of it all. I don’t remember any outrage when City Council DFL-ers supported their non-endorsed brethren last year, or when Al Franken was lectured for taking money from outside groups, or…well, you get the point. And I suspect we’ll never see eye to eye on it anyways.

          • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 11/07/2014 - 05:25 pm.


            Forget the lessons and judgment and all that and read this as an explanation of why she lost. She misled the DFL in obtaining the endorsement. Some DFLers (enough to make a difference) held her accountable and didn’t vote for her. Its a classic political/life lesson: don’t screw over the people who backed you at the start.

  5. Submitted by Elizabeth Campbell on 11/05/2014 - 10:16 pm.

    Altamirano got the highest $$ after Samuels. By, Far.

    I’ll just leave this here:


  6. Submitted by Wayne Studeman on 11/06/2014 - 10:11 am.

    Playing games with endorsements

    The unions and DFL got caught napping when endorsing Altamirano. Jourdain was and still is the best choice but the unions pushed onto the masses one of their own who tried to play both sides of the fence and took money from anti-union people for crying out loud. Altamirano was taken at face value and that is no way to endorse someone. Jourdain could have beaten Samuels but instead we got a stealth reform candidate with a DFL tag next to her name. Just goes to show that all the endorsements in the world along with all the $ doesn’t mean anything if the candidate doesn’t truly hold dearly our strong DFL values. If Jourdain runs in 2016 (I totally would understand if he doesn’t with all the backroom deal-making with DFL and Union folks) I would hope the DFL and Union folks get behind him. He is truly representative of what our party stands for (he works in our communities that need help the most and is a active parent of children in our schools) and spoke strongly in support of the rank-and-file and we didn’t support him. Instead we supported the wrong candidate and got Samuels.

  7. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 11/06/2014 - 11:48 am.

    Interesting set of comments

    From reading the comments it sure seems like “my way or the the highway”.

    Shouldn’t we consider the best ideas from each perspective in trying to solve difficult issues (e.g. how best to close achievement gaps between students)…..?

  8. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 11/07/2014 - 07:09 am.

    Predation of the Alpha male

    Went to a wonderful lecture at the Walker last night by Coco Fusco about the predation of the alpha male in our society. It was amazing because it could have been a road map for education reformers. It is amazing how the alpha male “will always find a way to profit out of populations of people who seemingly have nothing, while simultaneously ensuring the continue to have nothing. The greatest achievement is that the Alpha males keep well meaning and altruistic people complicit in their parasitism.

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