“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” is the oft-quoted remark of philosopher Edmund Burke. Well, a lot of men and women did nothing for an awfully long time as a troubling agenda triumphed in the Santa Ana school district. The thrust of it was revealed in a Register article on Jan. 30 detailing how “conflict, confusion and miscalculation unhinge the crowded district’s plans to build or fix schools.”
But on Tuesday, Santa Ana voters from all parts of the city and all walks of life did their part to restore some semblance of professionalism and sound thinking to the Santa Ana Unified School District. By a surprising margin, voters bounced trustee Nativo Lopez from the board, with all precincts supporting the recall.
As I argued a couple weeks back, the recall wasn’t only about Lopez, who was a lightning rod for a clash of ideologies surrounding America’s growing Latino community. It was about the best way for new immigrants to get ahead – through assimilation into American culture and English-speaking in the classrooms, or through political activism, group- based rights, and government efforts to address the grievances advanced by ethnic political machines.
So forget about Lopez as a person, and all his foibles and questionable actions and policies. From the broader perspective, the 71 percent vote in favor of the recall – including strong support even in the city’s poorest and most Latino neighborhoods – is the best possible news for those of us who believe in a diverse and civil society.
What’s heartening, too, is the way that some local leaders stepped to the plate and backed the recall, regardless of what it could have meant for their personal political fortunes. Of course, the Latino- majority Santa Ana City Council, including Mayor Miguel Pulido, came out in favor of the recall election.
The effort was sparked by the brave actions of local Latino parents who wanted their children to be taught in English-immersion classes, as generally required under California law. Retired teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, co-author of the anti-bilingual education Proposition 227, was an early and ardent supporter of the recall, as was the other co-author, Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who put his money where his heart was, and funded the recall election with almost $100,000. School board member Rosie Avila, a longtime voice of sanity in the wilderness, didn’t shirk from standing her ground even in the darkest hours.
The big surprise came on the Friday before the election, when Santa Ana schools Superintendent Al Mijares sent the Register a Guest Column to “rebut” a news article earlier in the week which detailed the district’s failed school-building program.
Mijares always struck me as personable and intelligent, but in my dealings with him he reliably echoed the line espoused by Lopez and his board ally, John Palacio. So when I heard about the coming column, I feared a defense of the board majority.
My jaw dropped when I read the words. Referring to “cancerous cells created by the distorted role of the board and the erosion of the authority of the superintendent’s office,” Mijares blamed Lopez and Palacio for having “systematically pressured, coerced and threatened my staff and me to carry out their wishes regardless of the cost financially and personally. They have seized control of the staff selection process, procurement procedures, selection of vendors and consultants.”
Then Mijares undermined the whole sham upon which the Lopez political machine is based: “They have frequently uttered the refrain that their work is being done for children and families of Santa Ana. That they are championing the rights of immigrant, Latino people. However, I believe their work has led to horrific ethical violations.”
This was a well-timed display of courage, especially when you consider that Mijares most certainly would have lost his job had the election gone the other way. On that Friday, remember, it was far from clear which way the wind was blowing, and some savvy strategists believed Lopez would survive yet another challenge.
I think the Mijares piece pushed it over the top.
There were plenty of other bold recall supporters who believed so strongly in the assimilationist vision, and the destructiveness of a race-based worldview, that they put themselves on the line, knowing the opprobrium and even harassment they could receive by doing so.
Others, however, went with the status quo. Many local politicians, Democrat and Republican, refused to take sides on the matter. Others offered lame excuses, such as that they simply do not support recall elections in general. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Now, some Lopez allies who were taking cover during the recall election are backing Superintendent Mijares. You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Always welcome converts. But it’s worth wondering where these “profiles in courage” were before the election.
In any election, a 58 percent to 42 percent vote would typically be considered a landslide. A 41 percentage-point margin of victory is inconceivable, unless the loser is totally unknown. Lopez is perhaps the best-known politician in Santa Ana, so the only explanation is that voters rejected his policies and worldview.
At a few minutes after 8 p.m. Tuesday, the recall was winning with about 69 percent of the vote with only two precincts counted.
I figured that must include the north-of-17th- Street precinct – the predominantly white district Lopez blamed for the recall.
You know how it goes on Election Night. The votes for, say, California governor are going along nicely (if you’re a Republican) as results come in from rural and suburban counties, and then San Francisco reports its results and the effect is like a tsunami, with the numbers shifting left rather quickly.
But as the absentee ballots were posted and the number of precincts reporting jumped to three, and then to eight and 10, the pro-recall number never budged from the 68 percent to 70 percent range.
What does it mean?
“People in the community are sending the message that people who sit in those chairs, the trustees, don’t own those chairs, the community does,” replacement trustee Rob Richardson told me during his Tuesday night victory party. “So many questions were raised about the credibility of the district, … its hiring practices, the whole school-building process. People want things to work. It’s not working now.”
Councilman Jose Solorio told me that education was the weak link in the city, and the election is “a defining moment that will realize incredible improvements in education. … Now it will be about educational achievement rather than politics.”
Amen to that. Now it will be about the content of the children’s education, not their skin color, their ethnic background or the political connections of those managing the system.
On the same day that Mijares was taking a stand, another newspaper published an editorial opposing the recall, and rehashing Lopez’s accusation that the election is about people who want to “keep the school buses and poor immigrant kids out of our neighborhood.”
Doesn’t that canard sound so irrational and arcane already?
Yes, a new day might be dawning in Santa Ana. As Richardson said in his victory speech, “Folks will note who stood up and who was absent.” Don’t worry, there will be more battles ahead, more opportunities for courage, more chances to follow the lead of Mijares and others rather than of those who chose to duck for cover.