Running on English, Winning on English

Although Americans frequently condemn the bipartisan cowardice and outright dishonesty of our elected officials, there is an obvious excuse for such failings.

Politicians live in a hyper-Darwinian world, in which their survival is tested ever two or four or six years. The more idealistic elements of both Left and Right may protest, but the First Law of Politics holds that anything which wins elections is—by definition—good and anything that loses elections is—by definition—evil.

With our chosen leaders following an endlessly recurring cycle of grubbing for votes and money, the framework of Good and Evil they develop often becomes less than exemplary. Such a resulting moral code may not only fail to match those followed by history’s greatest spiritual and religious leaders, it may even rank below that of your average next-door neighbor—or your average cat-burglar. Politicians who think otherwise frequently—and involuntarily—become former politician.

Furthermore, although most moral codes claim to be eternal truths established by a higher power, Political Good and Political Evil seems rather more transitory a concept. After every election, officeholders look around and draw morality conclusions based on which of their legislative neighbors are still around and which have been forcibly retired to lucrative if distasteful careers at lobbying firms in places like Washington DC or Sacramento.

The inherent brevity of such a political time horizon is also reinforced by the nature of modern politics, in which all too many candidates serve as mere spokespuppets for their shrewd and highly-paid political consultants, the men who tell them what and when and where to think and speak, and generally serve as the professional jockeys to their dumb equine charges.

We must realize that by any Election Day, most candidates have fallen into financial debt to those consultants, and losing candidates usually find it almost impossible to raise the money to repay that debt. If jockeys were paid fortunes for winning and given worthless IOUs for losing, we can imagine the extent to which they would allow their mount’s personal feelings to influence their efforts to whip their mounts across the finish line.

Thus, the discount rate that most consultant-ridden politicians apply even to merely the political side of possible policies is extraordinarily high. I suspect many candidates would gladly trade an extra three percentage points worth of votes in an election six months away against the likely near- annihilation of their entire party five or ten years down the road. Certainly all their political consultants would make that trade.

This cynical analysis is not merely hypothetical. A few years ago, during the bitter Immigration Wars that dominated 1994 California, I spent several hours in close discussion with an elected figure widely regarded as one of California’s shrewdest Republican officeholders, one who still holds very senior rank today. After doing my best to persuade him that widespread political attacks on Latino and other immigrants were very bad public policy—-a point that he seemed to freely concede but regarded as meaningless—I finally gave up and switched to the language of pure political interest.

Forget right and wrong, forget good policy and bad policy, I suggested—was it politically *smart* for the California Republican Party to so strongly position itself as the anti-immigrant party in a state in which over half of the entire population was made up of immigrants and their children?

Brought face to face with such dramatic statistics, he admitted that the Republican proposal to immediately expel 300,000 young immigrant children from California public schools might have a major political downside at some point in the future. But as of that moment, polls showed it very popular, and with the elections just three months away— back to immigrant-bashing!

Perhaps not coincidentally, the California Republicans had a very good year that November 1994—but a series of disastrously bad years since then, and has now been refused to a corpse by the backlash of angry immigrant voters.

Given these troubling but realistic views regarding the inner workings of our esteemed political leaders, we can easily predict what facts and events will determine whether or not millions of immigrant students throughout America or any given state will be taught English in school.

Of minor impact will be the wishes of those students or their parents or of the rest of society. Politicians care little whether “English” triples test score results in California or halves them, or even what the media says about these results, however glowing or discouraging they might be. Try to discuss the survival and prosperity of our society with such people, and you might as well be speaking ancient Aramaic. Even absolutely clear legal requirements enacted by distinguished judges or by landslide majorities of the voters themselves through the initiative process will have little sway.

The only real means of gaining the attention of these politicians is to help transform some of them into former politicians. After this occurs, “English” will suddenly become an issue of far greater immediate importance.


Fortunately, the last few days may have seen a dramatic turning of the tide on this question.

First, with some assistance by myself and others, a group of angry Latino parents in the city of Santa Ana has now filed a total of nearly 14,000 signatures, far more than the required 8600, on a recall petition against Nativo Lopez, a local elected official who has consistently refused to comply with Proposition 227. Over four years after the law changed, Santa Ana classes still teach in Spanish.

Mr. Lopez may not yet be a national name in political circles, but perhaps he should be, being a Latino political figure of the first rank in Southern California. Numerous elected and defeated candidates in Orange County believe they have owed their fate to the power of his local political machine, built around Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a social services provider, and dominating the city of Santa Ana and surrounding areas.

Besides ranking as one of California’s largest—if most under-reported—urban centers, Santa Ana received national attention early in 2002 as the American city with the highest percentage of non- English speakers, and is by some estimates the most heavily Latino. Around 90% of Santa Ana children are of Hispanic origin, and the issue of bilingual education has reverberated for years in Santa Ana USD, California’s fifth largest school district, with Lopez repeatedly vowing to maintain Spanish- language classes by means of his controlling majority on the local school board.

Lopez himself is hardly a political novice, having survived years of battle against a remarkably broad range of political foes. He has an almost unbroken series of victories over the supposedly powerful Orange County Republican Party, whether in the Loretta Sanchez Congressional race or various legislative contests. The Clinton Administration accused his organization of failing to account for hundreds of thousands in federal funds; Clinton is gone, but Lopez remains. Lawsuits by the California State Department of Education claiming millions of dollars in missing educational funds have also come to nothing. As an elected Democrat, Lopez holds the unusual distinction of being opposed by both the local teachers union and also the Service Employees Union, normally core elements of the Democratic coalition.

By all evidence, his popularity among the voters is not great. In November 2000, he barely won reelection despite spending the astonishing figure of $150,000 on a local school board race against opponents who spent just a tiny fraction of that total and amid widespread allegations of voting fraud. Soon after the election, newspapers carried stories that his huge war-chest had been raised by virtually extorting school contractors and architects.

If Lopez finally falls to this recall campaign, launched as it was by a group of non-political Latino parents angry that their children were not being taught English in their local schools, the echoes should reverberate far and wide.

Similar echoes may already be heard in Arizona, whose voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 203 in November 2000. There, this Tuesday the incumbent Republican Superintendent of Schools Jaime Molera, who refused to fully enforce the measure, was surprisingly defeated for Republican renomination by Tom Horne, a local School Board member and successful attorney who self-funded his long-shot drive and made support for “English” his central campaign theme.

Molera, a young and rather unimpressive individual, was certainly not a diehard advocate of bilingual education. Having been appointed by the Republican governor to fill out the term following the resignation of the disastrous Lisa Graham Keegan, his previous career as a Republican political staffer and junior lobbyist had apparently persuaded him that controversial issues are best avoided. He certainly followed this approach in the case of Prop. 203, repeatedly ignoring phone calls and letters complaining of gross violations of the law in various school districts.

One might reasonably suspect that Molera owed his entire political rise to a strategic combination of ethnicity and political affiliation, so tempting as to Republican political strategists who typically consider the category but not the individual in their desperate efforts to broaden their party’s base. With his very scanty resume and his undistinguished track-record, it is most unlikely that he would reached the rank of one of Arizona’s top officeholders as either a Latino Democrat or an Anglo Republican.

Be that as it may, Superintendent Molera easily gained the strong endorsement of all Arizona’s major Republican powers-that-be, including Gov. Jane Hull, U.S. Senators John McCain and John Kyle, Gubernatorial nominee Matt Salmon. He had the complete backing of the Republican Party establishment and its conservative wing, not to mention the fervent support of all the state’s major newspapers.

By contrast, Tom Horne’s endorsements were limited to just a handful of names: Maria Mendoza, Margaret Garcia Dugan, and Hector Ayala, leaders of English for the Children of Arizona. But these were enough to propel the Harvard-educated lawyer to his upset victory at the polls.

We must hope that Republican candidates around the country draw the appropriate conclusions from this dramatic result.

This may already be occurring in liberal Massachusetts. There, a hard-fought Republican primary for Lieutenant governor seems to be increasingly turning on the issue of which candidate more strongly supports Question 2, the November measure to replace that state’s bilingual programs with English immersion.

Jim Rappaport, the party insurgent, points to his early and complete endorsement of the measure as a key distinction with his opponent Carol Healey, whose later and somewhat hedged support may leave her vulnerable in next Tuesday’s vote, despite the all-out backing she enjoys from the very popular Republican Gubernatorial nominee, Mitt Romney. If this occurs, Massachusetts Republicans may begin to draw the same conclusions as their Arizona colleagues.

Meanwhile, in far more conservative Colorado, Amendment 31 was recently denounced by some of that state’s most prominent conservative educational activists, and has so far received only the most lukewarm and grudging support from Colorado Republican leaders in general, despite polls showing it enjoys the support of perhaps 85% of ordinary Republicans there, and almost as strong a majority among voters in general.

One might point to many culprits behind this typical anomaly—fervent commitment to the unlikely panacea of vouchers, Republican nervousness over an ethnically-charged issue, unwillingness to cross the pro-bilingual Bush Administration—but I think the fundamental factor is a simple one: lack of contested Republican primaries.

Yet in the long run, I strongly suspect that Republicans and Democrats will gradually get on the right side of history regarding “English.” Those who do not learn this lesson quickly enough will risk following Arizona Republican Jaime Molera and Santa Ana Democrat Nativo Lopez into involuntary political retirement.

Think of this entire process as being a political version of “evolution in action.” If even a population of simple slime-molds can gradually evolve under the pressure of survival, our politicians cannot remain too far behind.

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