A leading contender in next week's L.A. school board race is at odds with USC and UCLA over his academic standing, the latest in a series of uncomfortable disclosures for Christopher Arellano.
Arellano, 33, the candidate endorsed by the powerful Los Angeles teachers union, did not complete the master's programs for which he claims to have degrees, according to the University of Southern California. Further, UCLA declined Thursday to confirm his bachelor's degree, saying only that Arellano's "records are on hold."
In an interview, Arellano said he was unaware of a dispute about his record at UCLA, but he acknowledged he did not complete a required four units of classes for the Urban Planning component of the dual master's he has claimed at USC. He also said he fully completed the other of the two master's degrees, in social work.
Questions about Arellano's academic status came to light even as the well-financed political newcomer is trying to lay to rest another issue: a criminal past. Thursday's La Opinion published details about Arellano convictions for theft -- once at age 20 and again three years later.
Arellano insists that he has been open about his troubles.
"I am aware that my opponents have raised questions regarding my past," he said in a statement provided Wednesday night to the House of Representatives of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). "And yes, I did make some mistakes. I am not proud of these mistakes, but they have served to make me a better, stronger person. I am running for school board because I want to ensure that none of our children end up in the hopeless place that I did and make the same mistakes that I made."
Born Robert Christopher Bruce, Arellano said in an interview with The Journal that his mother was Mexican and his father Anglo and an alcoholic. He recounted dropping out of school and leaving Phoenix, Ariz. at 14, finally arriving in Los Angeles at 18, where he slept in a car.
"I have been like one of our kids who gets lost in the system," he said.
He began to get interested in theater and also hung out with Echo Park hipsters, who knew him as Bianco. He eventually changed his name legally to Christopher Bianco Arellano. Later, as an activist, he was involved in gay rights issues -- he is openly gay -- and the local Democratic party.
Arellano said he became politically awakened when he discovered Chicano studies at UCLA: "I redirected my frustration and anger to doing things and good work."
Following Arellano's appearance at the UTLA body Wednesday night, union delegates overwhelmingly voted to stand by their endorsement. At the meeting delegates were not, apparently, aware of questions regarding Arellano's academic status.
Arellano's character issues both cloud and enliven a political contest far off the radar of most Angelenos. He is one of four candidates running in District 2 of the Los Angeles Unified School District to replace Jose Huizar, who was elected to the Los Angeles City Council. Huizar now holds the seat formerly occupied by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Villaraigosa's shadow looms large over the race. After some initial hesitation, Mayor Villaraigosa has embraced a mayoral takeover of the L.A. school district. Both Villaraigosa and Huizar, a close ally, have endorsed former Huizar aide Monica Garcia. For her part, Garcia, 38, says she "can't really comment" on Villaraigosa's takeover plan until she sees it in writing. Some political observers have interpreted this response as indirect support for Villaraigosa's efforts.
The other candidates are not so coy in taking a different view. The most vocal opponent of the mayor's bid for authority over the schools has been Arellano, and his position helped win the UTLA endorsement -- UTLA has made resisting the mayoral takeover its No. 1 priority. Arellano also works fulltime for UTLA as a teacher rep. UTLA has consistently been the major donor in school-board races, and its endorsed candidates hold the majority on the seven-member Board of Education.
Essentially, the contest has shaped up as a proxy battle between the teachers union (supporting Arellano) and those in town who support putting the mayor in charge of L.A.'s schools (supporting Garcia). Arellano's corollary assets include a background as a community activist and, briefly, as a City Council aide.
But then came news of Arellano's other background.
In his campaign bio and in an initial interview, Arellano said he has two master's. USC spokesman James Grant said the school's position is that no degree has been conferred. When told of USC's contention, Arellano said he has four units to complete on the second master's in the dual master's program. Regarding the first master's: "I have completed all requirements for the social-work degree. I graduated and walked at graduation ceremonies in May of 2005."
UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton would say only that Arellano's academic records "are on hold and as a matter of policy we can't confirm whether he received a degree." He declined to say why the records are on hold.
"I have no idea what the problem is," Arellano said. "I graduated from UCLA in 1998. I don't know what the holdup is -- honestly. I do have student loans. They are current. With this campaign, people are letting me know what is happening in my life."
Arellano's problems could open the door for other candidates, especially if he loses the UTLA endorsement. A fallback union choice could be 31-year-old Enrique Gasca, a former Legislative aide who operates a public-relations and consulting firm and who has attracted some union support; he has presented himself as the only parent in the race. A dark-horse wildcard is Ana Teresa Fernandez, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate who works as a staffer for the California Charter Schools Association. She was schooled in activism by her mother, teacher Lupe Fernandez, who has lobbied ceaselessly for the completion of the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex. Fernandez scored endorsements from both the Los Angeles Times and the L.A. Weekly. A fifth candidate, Maria Lou Calanche, appears on the ballot but has suspended her campaign.
All of the other candidates' professed degrees check out. Garcia has a bachelor's from UC Berkeley and a master's from USC. Gasca has a bachelor's from Georgetown.
Arellano's candidacy could have fallen apart the evening of March 1, when the teachers union House of Representatives convened for a regular meeting and then entered closed session to discuss whether Arellano would keep the endorsement. The union already has committed to donating $200,000 to Arellano's campaign -- which could swamp the opposition. And more help is in the works, including a phone-bank operation, precinct walking and campaign mailers. The House dealt with the matter for about 30 minutes, said UTLA spokesman Steve Blazac. At one point, Arellano was summoned in to explain himself.
"It was an emotional appeal," Blazac said, "to teachers from someone who said, 'I had a troubled youth and stumbled a few times, but I turned my life around and let's move forward.'"
Speaking with The Journal, Arellano discounted tales told by former associates, who question his transformation and apparently alerted the media: "Obviously, they're not my friends. I've told you I made mistakes. I definitely screwed up in early life and I'm sorry about that."
In his written statement to union members, Arellano said: "Over the course of this campaign, I have always been upfront about the fact that I had a troubled childhood."
But Arellano never volunteered specifics, let alone implied that his troubles included criminal convictions or financial irresponsibility. In 1992, he appeared before a municipal court for stealing merchandise and for battery at Pioneer Market in Boyle Heights. He pleaded guilty to the theft charge in a plea agreement. The court fined him $415 and placed him on unsupervised probation for 24 months.
In 1995, Los Angeles police arrested him for stealing more than $400, which qualifies as grand theft. After initially pleading not guilty, he eventually entered a no-contest plea, according to court records. A judge fined him $125 and sentenced him to three days in prison, 30 days of forced labor with Caltrans, and mandatory psychiatric treatment. He subsequently missed multiple court appearances. Court records indicate two bench warrants were issued for his arrest for failure to appear in court, spanning from 1995 to March 1999. The 1995 case continued until September 2004.
The 1992 case did not officially close until a hearing today (Thursday) in Los Angeles Superior Court, according to court records. For more than 10 years -- until today -- there has been an outstanding warrant for his arrest due to repeated failures to appear in court.
Arellano's docket also includes a separate 1998 judgment for a loan debt of $3,610.97. Arellano said he couldn't recall the case, but that "any kind of debt that needed to be paid I paid. My credit score I'm happy with."
The question for voters is simply: Who is Christopher Arellano? Former friends, some claiming to be victims of alleged scams, say they consider him a charming con artist and just can't believe that he has reformed. They point out that some of his problems have persisted into recent times, such as the now-closed court cases.
But Arellano earned good marks in his year working as a field deputy for City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who has endorsed Arellano.
"Chris, I think, embodies somebody who has not only transformed his life, but also overcome a lot of hardship to be a success story, which is what we want to see a lot of youths in Los Angeles achieve," Garcetti said. "He was a dropout and overcame a broken home to work on behalf of social justice. He was able to put himself through college and graduate school. He was an extremely welcome, bright, articulate presence in the office."
Additional reporting by Robert David Jaffee.