Ron Unz has never spoken to Nativo Lopez, and he doesn’t plan to. But Unz is obsessed with the Santa Ana Unified School District trustee who is one of the most outspoken proponents of bilingual education. The Palo Alto multimillionaire and onetime candidate for governor is bankrolling the campaign to unseat Lopez–and destroy bilingual education in California once and for all.
Unz has been by far the largest contributor to the Lopez recall campaign. He has ponied up nearly $100,000 of the $115,000 raised by Families for Education First and the Recall Nativo Lopez Committee, the two main organizations seeking to force Lopez into early retirement. Unz lent them a fax machine, a computer and a lawyer. He funneled about $18,000 to candidates who ran unsuccessfully in the November 2002 Santa Ana school board race on anti-Nativo platforms, and he has even flown into Santa Ana to meet with Lopez foes. Unz plans to donate even more cash and resources in the days before the Feb. 4 recall election. “It would have been a lot more difficult for the recall to have reached this point without my support,” he acknowledged. “None of the activists in Santa Ana have much money. My support has made a very significant difference, even though I haven’t given as much as I would have liked.”
The theoretical physicist-turned-anti-bilingual- education activist would give more because, he says, Lopez poses the biggest threat to his baby: Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot initiative that sought to end bilingual education in state schools. Unz co-wrote Prop. 227 with Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman; though it won, Lopez lives– indeed thrives–in part on the rage of bilingual’s remaining supporters. Getting rid of Lopez, Unz believes, will allow for full statewide implementation of the measure.
This might seem like a paranoiac pipe dream. After all, most of Prop. 227 has already been implemented, such as mandatory English-immersion classes for non-English-speaking students and the eradication of Spanish-language instruction in classrooms. But school districts across the state– spurred by Santa Ana’s lead–have found loopholes allowing children to continue learning in both English and Spanish.
In addition to knocking down one of the state’s leading proponents of bilingual education, Unz sees symbolism in a Lopez recall: it would prove that Latinos–who make up 90 percent of Santa Ana’s student population–largely oppose bilingual education.
“If he goes down in defeat in the most Latino city in America, a lot of people will take note of that,” Unz enthused. “And that might embolden others to speak out against and finish those loopholes that allow bilingual education to continue.”
So Unz was more than willing to be of service when a group of Santa Ana parents contacted him in the fall of 2001. “They told me Lopez was still allowing Spanish to be taught in schools and not allowing Prop. 227 to take effect,” says Unz, who was especially chagrined by reports that Lopez was “coercing” parents into signing waivers permitting their children to be taught in two languages.
The so-called “coercion” consisted of town hall meetings in which Lopez informed parents of their rights to apply for such waivers, something Santa Ana schools have been doing legally for years (see Tim Meltreger’s “Choice of a New Generation,” Nov. 20, 1998).
Unz suggested that the anti-Nativo crowd file a lawsuit against Lopez and the district, but he says the disgruntled parents with whom he met wanted more. “They were impatient,” Unz says. “They had been working on this for the past couple of years, so they decided to wage a recall campaign instead.”
At first, Unz was skeptical of the recall and advised the group against it. “I know that in general, recalls are difficult to carry out, much more so than pursuing a lawsuit,” Unz says. “But they decided to ignore my advice and went ahead. Then I realized it was more doable than I originally thought.”
Specifically, Unz discovered that Lopez was re- elected in 2000 by only 500 votes–despite outspending his opponents nearly 10-1. He read articles about Lopez strong-arming school- construction firms for donations. He met other people who had been after Lopez for years.
“He seemed to have a huge list of enemies,” Unz says. “And all of these factions were uniting under this recall to get him. He was very vulnerable. That’s when I decided to get involved as much as possible.”
Lopez has made Unz’s involvement a campaign issue. He sent supporters a July 2001 letter–also published on the national Latino news website www.hispanicvista.com– complaining bitterly about Unz’s stewardship of the recall campaign. “Help us fight to stop Unz’s extremist drive to take over the board of education of the Santa Ana Unified School District,” Lopez pleaded.
The trustee insists that the majority of locals who want him recalled are wealthy Anglos who live north of 17th Street–the Mason-Dixon Line of Santa Ana politics.
In fact, the parents leading the charge against Lopez are working-class Latinos, including Beatrice Salas and Vivian Martinez. According to Unz, Lopez “would be a dead duck” if he acknowledged that the recall campaign is really “a battle for the soul of bilingual education waged by working-class Latinos.”
He firmly believes the toppling of Lopez is imminent–and does not hide his glee.
“He’s the ultimate survivor,” Unz says of his nemesis. “He’s been running circles around Republicans for years; around the Clinton administration who tried to nail him for election fraud ; around the state department of education, which accuses him of mismanaging millions of dollars. But it would be fascinating if what finally brings him down are the parents who I helped.”