A group that lobbies to change public education is pouring money into a handful of Northern California legislative races ahead of the June 7 election, aiming to influence the kind of Democrats who hold power in the state Capitol.

Democrats make up a solid majority of the Legislature, but they do not agree on everything. A band of business-friendly Democrats has gained enough clout to buck more liberal Democrats on some environmental issues. Campaign spending by EdVoice, an advocacy group that supports charter schools and tying student test scores to teacher evaluations, reveals an attempt to build a cohort of Democrats who might break from their colleagues on some education issues, too. At stake are pressing questions about how to help the most disadvantaged students succeed in the nation’s largest public school system.

“In California, we’re fighting over shades of Democrat,” said political consultant Phil Giarrizzo, who represents Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, one of the Democrats backed by EdVoice.

Teachers unions have been a prevailing influence on Democrats for decades. EdVoice, funded by philanthropists from the business world, is part of a counterforce that often supports policies opposed by organized labor. Unions and school reformers have sparred over charter schools, teacher tenure and how to measure school performance – dividing Democrats at many levels of government.

The tension has been obvious in the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama, who’s come under fire from national teachers unions. It surfaced in California’s 2014 race for state superintendent, when the California Teachers Association spent big to elect Democrat Tom Torlakson, while reform groups put money behind Democratic challenger Marshall Tuck.

Now it’s emerging in a cluster of legislative races that stretch from the Bay Area cities of Concord and Vallejo to rural swaths of Yolo and Napa counties. With super-PAC style independent expenditures, EdVoice has spent nearly $2.3 million as of May 17 on four races, blanketing the region with mailers supporting Democrats who are not endorsed by the California Teachers Association. EdVoice has spent more on these races in the last month than the candidates themselves did in the first four months of the year. On May 16, the group poured about $86,000 into a fifth race based in Silicon Valley.

Two of the races are for open Assembly seats and demonstrate a clear schism between EdVoice, supporting lesser-known Democrats, and the CTA, backing those with family ties to elected officials:

  • In the 4th Assembly District (mostly Napa, Yolo and Sonoma counties) EdVoice is supporting Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, while CTA has endorsed Davis Mayor Dan Wolk, son of outgoing-Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (left) and Dan Wolk (right).
  • In the 14th Assembly District (mostly Contra Costa and Solano counties) EdVoice is supporting Concord Mayor Tim Grayson, while CTA has endorsed Mae Torlakson, wife of the state superintendent.

    Tim Grayson (left) and Mae Torlakson (right)

Wolk and Torlakson each received $8,500 contributions from CTA, but the union has not spent money on independent campaigns so far. CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs wouldn’t say if the union plans to do so. Its endorsements, she said, reflect vetting by local teachers and school employees.

“The candidate that gets their recommendation is somebody who is … committed to working alongside them to make sure our students across this state have everything they need,” Briggs said.

The other two races where EdVoice is funding campaigns are in Senate districts where CTA has not made endorsements. EdVoice is supporting incumbent Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), a moderate Democrat who was opposed by labor in earlier elections, and Assemblyman Bill Dodd (D-Napa), a former Republican who registered as a Democrat in 2012. The seats overlap the 4th and 14th Assembly districts.

EdVoice and a coalition of civil rights groups have been pushing the state to establish a more rigorous system for evaluating schools. The group’s president, Bill Lucia, said he hopes the issue will attract more attention from future legislators.

“The Legislature has been too passive on (school) accountability and has more work to do,” Lucia said.

Major donors to the EdVoice campaigns include Southern California businessman Bill Bloomfield, Silicon Valley investor Arthur Rock, and Walmart heir Carrie Walton Penner. The committee has spent about $138,000 attacking Mae Torlakson, who calls herself the progressive Democrat in the Contra Costa-centered race.

“I’m going to fight for common people and these billionaires are trying to stop me from doing that,” she said.

Grayson, her opponent, said he would align himself with the Legislature’s moderate Democrats. He said he’s up against a candidate with strong name recognition.

“People relate that name with education because that’s (Tom Torlakson’s) roots,” Grayson said.

North of them, in the Yolo County-centered race, Wolk said he does not support charter schools and believes “teachers have been unfairly blamed for many of the failures of our public education system.”

Aguiar-Curry said she supports charter schools and would work with teachers even though she didn’t receive their endorsement.

“I support them 110 percent,” she said.

In both Assembly races, the primary election carries high stakes for Democrats. Under California’s open primary, the top two candidates – regardless of party – advance to the general election. Because of the makeup of these districts and the pool of candidates, it’s likely that one Democrat and one Republican will finish in the top two. That means the Democrat who wins in June will, in all probability, be sworn into office at the end of the year.

Four legislative districts where EdVoice is spending big in 2016 elections.

Note: Three donors to EdVoice’s independent expenditure committee — Carrie Walton Penner, Doris Fisher and Frank Baxter — are among the dozens of donors to CALmatters.

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Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...