December 8, 2019

Insider, Outsider

I check in periodically with David Tokofsky, who has represented the Eastside on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) since 1995, just to find out how long it takes to stop being considered an outsider.

For a Jewish boy on the Eastside, the answer is: more than two terms. Even now, despite winning two elections, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has made him the target of redistricting, to insure that the next time out, someone with a Latino surname gets the job.

When Tokofsky, a teacher’s union activist fluent in Spanish and a veteran chair of the academic decathlon, first ran for the school board, friends and foe alike suggested he move to Agoura, just for job security.

"Guess I have ‘Agouraphobia,’" he quipped, and moved to Eagle Rock.

He’s had some grueling battles, beating down both a recall and a recount. He’s still in there, ready to fight again.

Not so many years ago, guys from our community, like Tokofsky, were called "liberals," hard working or caring. We looked at them in admiration for self-sacrifice. We expected one day they’d go to law school.

These days, well, I don’t know whether to be embarrassed. or not. The Tokofskys of the world are few and far between. Even with the emergency inducement of the current teaching shortage, there are still few Jewish teachers, and proportionately fewer Jewish students in public school. In East Los Angeles, there aren’t many of either.

Still, Tokofsky always makes me feel that his is the way it should be: talented, professional educators should be as natural to emerge from the Jewish community as rabbis. Naturally, these professional educators should go where they’re needed most, whether or not politicians say they are wanted there.

Because Tokofsky thinks his is the natural order of the universe; he tends to get offended when others react differently.

The map intended to front-load his 5th District with as many Latino voters as possible was not a surprise. What did surprise Tokofsky, was the way the rest of the Westside/Valley political establishment, distracted by secession and its own ambitions, seemed to cave in, ignoring the work of the citizens committee allowing MALDEF to become the major player.

When I spoke to Tokofsky this week, he was livid in battle, as might be expected, facing as he was many as four potential redistricing maps in which his Latino voter base in his 5th District varied anywhere from 51 to 58 percent. The City Council was expected to hear the matter on Tuesday, June 4.

"I’ll get there, one way or the other," Tokofsky told me. "I’m good for the election system. I bring out voters."

By now, it’s no surprise to find Tokofsky under attack, especially from Latino activists who want his seat for themselves.

A nicer surprise is who his friends are. Frank del Olmo’s Sunday Los Angeles Times column praising Tokofsky was gratifying.

"The LAUSD veteran could show other politicians how to serve Latino voters," del Olmo wrote.

And how might that be? Del Olmo praised Tokofsky for many of the maverick positions for which Westsiders criticize him.

Tokofsky started out as the lone defender of Ruben Zacharias, the first Latino school superintendent.

This month he was a lone voice defending standardized tests, while the rest of the board wanted tests that made the district look better, without improving student performance.

He refused to back the completion of the Belmont Learning Complex, saying it was still unsafe.

I don’t know. The man seems to know his district.

Our community is still reeling from the Katz/Alarcon senate race of a few years ago. So we understandably worry about a man who faces ethnic conflict every time he announces he’s running again.

That’s why del Olmo’s praise of Tokofsky deserves additional comment. There seemed to be two reasons for optimism that the ethnic tensions of the recent election cycle might be passing away.

First, del Olmo accepted that non-Latinos are part of the political landscape, by implication, deserving of respectful hearing and support when warranted from his community.

Second, del Olmo reminded us that human beings don’t change. City Councilman Arthur K. Snyder retained his seat throughout the ’70s by catering to the needs of his Latino district. With such concern for the district, Tokofsky can win, regardless if his seat looks like a salamander.

The piece was brief consolation. By press time, the City Council had approved the MALDEF map. The vote for MALDEF was 13-2 with no one from the Westside or Valley on his side.