A Spanish-Speaking Landslide for “English”

Although Wednesday’s headlines were mostly dominated by the unfolding debate surrounding our likely war with Iraq, papers in a large swath of Southern California newspapers carried front-page reports of the conclusion to an equally lopsided contest, a Santa Ana vote on the fate of Nativo Lopez, the leading political figure of that city.

If November’s thirty-six point landslide for Question 2 in Massachusetts proved that the accuracy of all the many national polls indicating overwhelming liberal Democratic support for “English,” yesterday’s even wider, forty-one point margin for the recall of Nativo Lopez in Santa Ana did the same for Latino sentiment on that issue. For a well-entrenched incumbent to spend massive quantities of money—approaching the level of dollars spent by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a per-vote basis—and fail to win even 30% of the vote is a truly stunning verdict.

As many of you might be aware, Santa Ana enjoys the remarkable distinction of being not merely the largest city in Orange County and one of the largest in California, but—according to the 2000 Census—also the most heavily Spanish-speaking city in America,
comfortably ahead of such more obvious names as Miami or El Paso.

Home to an overwhelming Latino immigrant population, for the last several years much of its political life—and especially control of its school system, the fifth largest in the state—has been dominated by a rather ruthless political machine controlled by Lopez, a controversial long-time Latino activist.


Himself a sixth-generation Mexican-American born in the Los Angeles town of Norwalk, Lopez as a youth enlisted in the Latino activism movement of the late 1960s, taking classes in Spanish and politics at his local college while forsaking his given name of “Larry” for the much more unusual and ideologically-charged Nativo or “Native.” Soon afterward, “Native” Lopez moved southward to Orange County and opened a local branch of an ethnically-based social services organization just in advance of the enormous tide of Latino immigration that would vastly swell its local membership and influence.

Using that organization as the basis for his political machine, he won election to the Santa Ana School Board in 1996, in a campaign marred by widespread allegations of voter fraud. Four years later, he raised and spent almost $200,000—an absolutely unprecedented sum for a small local race—outspending his opponents by 10 or 20-to-1 in an extremely narrow reelection victory, once again marred by similar accusations of voter fraud.

That enormous sum had been raised almost entirely from contractors and others seeking business with the school district Lopez controlled, and soon after the election, the Los Angeles Times carried a banner-headline story airing the charges of those contributors that they have been heavily pressured into donating the money to Lopez and his close allies. In a related vein, the Clinton Administration and the California Department of Education repeatedly charged that Lopez and his community organization failed to properly account for millions of dollars they received in state and federal funding.

The result of all these endless charges, allegations, complaints, and headlines? As of one year ago, Lopez and his followers held absolute control over the fifth largest school district in California and its half-billion-dollar annual budget, received respectful, even fawning treatment from state legislative officials, and were widely predicted to become the dominant political force throughout a growing portion of Southern California. A sad, but hardly surprising political story.


Then matters suddenly took an unexpected turn. For a mixture of ideological and political reasons, Lopez had long been a fervent supporter of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education,” leading him to take a public stand as one of California foremost opponents of Proposition 227 during the 1998 campaign and even after the landslide victory of that measure.

Five years on, most other school districts in Southern California had largely shifted over to English immersion, leading some of the most diehard Spanish-language advocates to migrate down to Santa Ana Unified, which they rightly viewed as one of the few remaining
strongholds of their educational beliefs. As a result, not only did Santa Ana schools contain an enormously disproportionate share of Orange County’s remaining bilingual classes, but in some cases schools that had been teaching English in 1999 or 2000 began doing away
with those classes, and shifting their instruction over to Spanish.

Outraged by the unwillingness of local school administrators to offer English classes at their local neighborhood school—and alarmed by the absolutely dismal student test scores that resulted—Vivian Martinez and a small group of angry Latino parents spent years taking their complaints up and down the educational hierarchy, being completely ignored by Lopez and his subordinates.

Finally, in desperation, they contacted me through my web site, and soon after—against my strong advice—launched what seemed like an utterly quixotic recall campaign against their local political master. Not only had Nativo Lopez repeatedly bested both the Orange County Republican Party and the Clinton Administration, but he felt so utterly confident in his own power that he had even recently run radio commercials denouncing California Gov. Gray Davis as a “f—— little white man.”

The rest became history. Those parents spent their evenings and weekends gathering thousands of recall signatures from throughout Santa Ana to enormous popular response, and after Lopez hired an army of up to fifty or more paid “blockers”—many from East LA—to harass and discourage the potential signers, I provided the necessary funding to overcome that formidable professional opposition.

In desperation, Lopez next sought to divert tens of thousands of dollars of Santa Ana school district funds to challenge the legality of the scheduled recall election but to no avail. Soon afterward, he persuaded the notorious leftwing Latino rights organization MALDEF to make a similar attempt to there disenfranchising Santa Ana’s overwhelmingly Latino electorate, but the local judge supported the right of Latinos to vote even if MALDEF did not.

Desperate for political survival, Lopez found no support among prominent local Latino officials, with Mayor Miguel Pulido and all the Latino members of the City Council
strongly endorsing his removal, while the silence from prominent legislators such as Loretta Sanchez and Lou Correa was deafening.

But Lopez did receive large contributions and strong political endorsements from some of California’s most prominent East LA politicos, such as Antonio Villaraigosa, Richard Polanco, and Gil Cedillo. By the end, up to eight separate professional mailers a day were arriving in each Santa Ana mailbox from the Nativo Lopez campaign, touting these names, while his phone banks worked non-stop, telling voters that Orange County’s popular Republican Sheriff, Mike Carona urged a No vote on the recall, even after the Sheriff denounced the claim to the media as a falsehood.

On the other side, just days before the election, Al Mijares, the respected Latino Superintendent of Santa Ana schools, published a column in the Orange Country Register, denounced his erstwhile political masters as “cancerous cells,” destroying the school system through their “horrific ethical violations.”

Three days later, the voters apparently agreed. In a city with 30,000 registered Latino voters, Nativo Lopez spent $150,000 to win barely 3700 votes.

By an interesting coincidence, this morning’s newpapers carried the headlines that Latino births had for the first time surpassed 50% of the total, providing strong indications that California would eventually become a majority-Latino state. The results of the Lopez recall provide an important sign of the likely political path that will be followed by this large population group.


I attach below a few of the news stories chronicling the origins and eventual outcome of this important Battle of Santa Ana.

Among the fascinating details were the election-day interviews with voters who had cast ballots for or against Lopez. Those voters who favored him cited a wide variety of reasons, while nearly all those Latinos who voted against him cited his support for bilingual education. Only one interviewed voter favored him because of the bilingual education issue, a woman named Martha Schneider.

Highly credible national surveys have shown that roughly 80% of Latino immigrants support an English-only education from the first day of school. I see little evidence here to doubt that.

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