Torrance political slate mailer using ‘P.T.A.’ acronym infuriates the real PTA
The campaign literature looks innocent enough: a glossy mailer from a Torrance organization called the P.T.A. Voters Guide — complete with decorative apples — that endorses about a dozen South Bay candidates in various races for the Nov. 5 election.
But the slate mailer has stoked the fury of the PTA that everybody knows — that is, the one that raises money for schools with bake sales and school carnivals.
The reason? The P.T.A. does not equal the PTA. The former is an organization called the “Parent Teacher Action” Voter Guide, an organization that to date exists solely to endorse the candidates who paid for a spot on the mailer.
The latter acronym stands for the Parent Teacher Association. By law and by design, this well-oiled, 105-year-old organization — whose logo is trademarked — does not endorse candidates for office.
Last week, as the glossy ad landed in the mailboxes of South Bay residents, irked local PTA affiliates wasted little time in sending their complaint up the flagpole to statewide headquarters in Sacramento. The statewide chapter, in turn, promptly relayed the complaint to the organization’s legal team at the national level.
“The PTA has great credibility because we are nonpartisan and nonsectarian, and so it’s very important to us to maintain that nonpartisanship,” said Colleen You, president of the California State PTA. “In this particular case, I think the group or the individuals circulating the mailer are trading on the credibility and reputation of the PTA.”
Michele Nadeau, a parent volunteer at South High in Torrance, was less diplomatic.
“I think it’s horrible,” said Nadeau, who was careful to mention that she was speaking as a parent, not a PTA representative. “It’s a direct attempt to mislead the voters. They’re vying to represent us yet they are hoping we are uninformed. It’s insulting. I think it’s disturbing that we have candidates resorting to these tactics — deliberately trying to deceive us.”
Slate mailers often take liberties in an effort to provide a certain snapshot portrayal of what they stand for. But this dustup raises questions about how far they can go before crossing an ethical or even legal line.
The creator of the mailer is Liberty Campaign Solutions, a political consulting company run by Patrick Furey.
A representative of the company who declined to give his name said the group is well within its legal right to use the acronym.
“We have never given any false claim to being affiliated with that organization,” he said, pointing out that the literature includes a disclaimer, on the bottom of the back page, stating that the group is not affiliated with the “National PTA nor any Parent Teacher Association.”
By way of comparison, he cited the well-known California slate mailer “COPS Voter Guide.”
“The people who put it out are not law enforcement in any way whatsoever,” he said. “However, I am sure that they support safe neighborhoods and protecting families. That’s their thing. That’s what they are advocating for.”
Likewise, he said, the P.T.A. Voter Guide is advocating for quality education and safe schools.
“When we speak to candidates, we ask them, ‘Do you support safe schools and quality education?’ ” he said. “It is a pledge.”
Among the candidates who took this pledge is Sergio Mortara, the only one of five contestants for the Hawthorne school board whose name and bio is on the mailer. Mortara, who has never run for political office, said he was taken aback by how, just days after he filed his campaign papers, he was flooded with solicitations from slate mailers and consultants.
Of the seven or eight mailers that came his way, the P.T.A. slate seemed like the best fit.
“The other ones were either Republican or Democrat,” he said. Asked if he thought it is misleading to use the P.T.A. acronym, he said, “It never dawned on me, the similarities, to be honest.”
Also on the mailer is John Paul Tabakian, who is running for a seat on the Torrance school board. Tabakian says he did not pay to be on the mailer. Instead, his spot was purchased by some other organization or individual that supports him.
“I don’t know who did,” said the political science instructor at Los Angeles Mission College and L.A. Trade Tech, who is supported by an alliance that includes unions and Republican groups alike. “The way I see it, I cannot refuse to be on the slate.”
Tabakian likes to say that he is a professor, not a politician, and he views the situation with a degree of detachment. In fact, he used the slate mailer as a discussion piece in one of his classes.
“One of my students said, ‘I think that is misleading,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘In politics, perception is everything.’ ”
One Torrance school board candidate who is not on the mailer is Michael Wermers, currently the board president. Liberty Campaign Solutions repeatedly solicited him to purchase an ad. (The participation cost reportedly varies according to the race, but one source said Liberty asked for $1,000.)
“It seemed like a capitalization of the PTA’s logo,” Wermers said. “That’s what turned me off.”
Terry Ragins, a Torrance school board member with a long history of PTA involvement, said one galling aspect of the mailer is that some of the candidates, in her opinion, are definitely not friends of schools. In particular, she was referring to Rick Marshall, a candidate for the El Camino College board, who in the past has been criticized — by school people and judges alike — for filing frivolous lawsuits against Torrance Unified.
But she expressed surprise that the mailer includes an ad for Torrance school board member Mark Steffen, whose bid for re-election she has endorsed.
“I’m guessing he was not clear about what he was getting into,” she said of Steffen, who couldn’t be reached for comment.
Ragins is also puzzled by the mailer’s inclusion of an advertisement for the Torrance mayoral candidacy of Pat Furey, father of Patrick. That election won’t happen until June 2014.
“He has been a huge friend of the PTA,” she said of the elder Furey, noting how the Torrance City Council member is working with the organization to find more foster parents in Torrance. “He’s a friend of mine, and I’ve always felt like he’s an honorable person. That’s why I’m withholding judgment.”
Furey also couldn’t be reached for comment.
As for the slate mailer, the blow-back from the PTA has been enough to persuade Liberty Campaign Solutions to begin the process of changing the P.T.A. logo.
“We have our graphic artist working on it,” the representative said, adding that the new logo will be ready by the next cycle of elections in 2014. “We don’t want to piss off the PTA. That’s not our goal.”