San Diego The timing couldn't be better, at least from the standpoint of termed-out San Diego assemblyman Juan Vargas, who's trying to unseat congressional incumbent Bob Filner in June's 51st District primary election. At the same moment in history, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has kicked off his attempt to take control of the L.A. Unified School District. But instead of asking L.A. voters to approve the change, a risky and expensive proposition at best, the mayor and his business allies have decided to take their case to the state legislature, where bills are often molded by the highest bidders. Villaraigosa says he's the last best hope to reform L.A.'s troubled public schools; his critics say putting so much concentrated power into the mayor's hands without the oversight of the elected school board would be an invitation to rampant corruption. But merits aren't expected to figure much in the debate; instead, familiar contributors have already begun opening their checkbooks. Arrayed against the mayor is the state schoolteachers union. In Villaraigosa's corner are the city's major real estate interests, who count on him for a multitude of favors.
Enter Vargas, who could play a key role in making sure Villaraigosa's takeover bill slides through the Assembly. And, right on cue, the L.A. mayor's moneymen have begun to deliver funds to Vargas's until-recently bereft congressional campaign kitty. Leading the pack is Richard Meruelo, a well-heeled Cuban-American developer with homes in L.A. and Miami. Meruelo owns big chunks of L.A. real estate and is Villaraigosa's biggest backer, dumping more than $190,000 into last year's mayoral campaign, most of it in the form of so-called independent expenditures that paid for phone banks, radio spots, and robo-calls. Meruelo family members gave Villaraigosa another $7000. In December, Meruelo gave his first $1000 to Vargas. Then on March 23, Meruelo, along with his parents, Belinda and Homero, contributed another $5000.
The Meruelo family is not without controversy. A decade ago, brother Homer Jr. was convicted of insurance fraud. And Meruelo himself has been engaged in an ugly showdown with the L.A. school board over a 23-acre parcel he owns that the school district wants for a high school. Earlier this month the board voted to condemn the land after Meruelo refused to sell and instead went to court, claiming the district didn't do a proper environmental review.
Other wealthy backers of Villaraigosa have also been giving to Vargas. On March 31, Eli Broad, the billionaire developer and insurance magnate, kicked in $500. Closer to home, Arthur Bersin, the father of state secretary of education Alan Bersin -- former chief of San Diego Unified, as well as a good friend and political ally of Broad's -- gave $1000 on March 5. Annie Malcolm, whose husband David did time in a work-furlough program for felony conflicts of interest arising from his tenure as a San Diego port commissioner, contributed $600 on February 2.