Anti-bilingual education activist Ron Unz is under fire for an e-mail that refers to federal Education Secretary Rod Paige’s race and questions his intelligence.

The e-mail came in response to a Denver Post story in which Paige disagreed with a key provision of a ballot proposal that Unz, a California businessman and politician, wants to put before Colorado voters in November. It would bar local schools from using Spanish to help immigrant kids learn English.

“Whether or not it is advisable to completely shut the door on native language instruction is a decision that has to be made at the point of instruction,” Paige was quoted as saying in the article in the early edition of the Sunday Post.

Unz responded with an e-mail to journalists and supporters nationwide calling Paige “a black football coach” and “the dimmest member of the Bush Cabinet.” Paige has an “apparent lack of ability to master or comprehend” his job, Unz wrote.

Unz and his organization, English for the Children, have already gotten anti-bilingual laws passed in California and Arizona. This year they’re targeting Colorado and Massachusetts.

Unz is well-known to Latino activists nationally. He won support from many as a California gubernatorial candidate in 1994 by opposing a ballot proposal denying public services to illegal immigrants. But he has angered many by fighting bilingual education.

Unz delights in being politically incorrect in his frequent e-mails, but Monday’s message went further than ever, said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C.

“It is amazing to me that he would invoke race and ethnicity and say that Secretary Paige has no standing to address issues of importance to the Latino community when Ron Unz himself has been going around the country touting himself as an expert on issues of importance to the Latino community,” she said.

Paige’s race was relevant because African-Americans have been speaking English for too many generations to remember what it means to learn a new language in a new country, Unz said Tuesday.

“Greeks or Italians or Jews would fall into the more Latino category in that they have a much more recent and personal connection to learning English,” Unz said.

Unz has said he was motivated to dismantle bilingual education because his Yiddish-speaking mother learned English easily while many Hispanic immigrants never do.

Colorado Education Secretary William Moloney took issue with the e-mail: “The portrait of Secretary Paige is grossly inaccurate and breathtaking in its insensitivity. I know Secretary Paige personally, I have worked with him, and he is a gentleman of extraordinary ability and character. I also know that his counsel is highly valued within the Bush administration. Mr. Unz’s description just bears no resemblance to reality.”

English Plus, a group opposing the initiative, will make the e-mail a campaign issue, spokesman Steve Welchert said.

“I guess you can’t be a black man or a football player to fit Ron Unz’s qualifications,” Welchert said.

“It would lead one to ask why a non-Colorado computer geek ought to be telling Coloradans how to change their constitution.”

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