Green Dot Founder Steve Barr to Run Against Garcetti in LA

(Photo: Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

(Photo: Mel Melcon, Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles charter school founder Steve Barr has filed papers to run for Los Angeles mayor, launching a candidacy that could reshape Mayor Eric Garcetti’s reelection bid by focusing attention on the city’s struggling school system.

Barr, who has never held elected office, has become a champion of the education reform movement. Reportedly, he has grown frustrated with the Garcetti administration’s efforts, which Barr accuses of being too passive, toward improving the city’s worsening education sector. According to SoCal Patch, Barr said Garcetti is a “really nice guy” but lacks “a sense of urgency” in addressing the shortcomings of the nation’s second-largest school system.

“The school district – and I’m saying this as a big fan of the school district, as a parent in the school district – in some ways is a little bit like an alcoholic who hasn’t bottomed out yet,” Barr said. “It’s getting better, but we can’t afford as a city to just let this thing linger out there, because it’s not just affecting them anymore. It’s affecting our city, and it has for a long time.”

According to reporters for the Los Angeles Times, Barr faces long odds against a popular incumbent who has built a broad and strong political base and commands an impressive fundraising apparatus. Moreover, Mayor Garcetti has made no major missteps in his first three years in office. Still, Barr may have an appeal to an electorate in which school quality tops most polls as the primary issue of voter concern.

Indeed, school policy has dominated city politics in years past. Former Mayor Richard Riordan campaigned for candidates favored by the Board of Education, a move that incensed the local teachers’ union. And former Mayor Antoni Villaraigosa staged a winning campaign in 2005 against incumbent Mayor James Hahn after he promised to launch serious public school reforms. Much of Mayor Villaraigos’s plans, however, were stymied in courts, including his effort to have the city take over the school district.

“He’s [Barr] running as an outsider at a time when voters are powerfully suspicious of the political establishment, and he’s running on an issue that’s close to the hearts of most Angelenos,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It will be an uphill fight for him, but this is something that Garcetti and his team would be smart to take very seriously.”

Barr founded the Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit chain of charter schools that began operating in Los Angeles. He oversaw the controversial takeover of Locke High School, the first time one of Los Angeles Unified’s schools was turned over to a chart school group. In 2009, Barr stepped down from his leadership position at Green Dot but has remained active in education policy at the state and national level.

According to Dakota Smith of the Daily News, the only other challenger to Mayor Garcetti who has entered the race is Mitchell Schwartz, a seasoned political consultant, who directed President Obama’s 2008 campaign in California and was communications director at the U.S. Department of State under President Bill Clinton.