SANTA ANA — Nativo Lopez, the controversial leader of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional whose tight race for the school board surprised many in this mostly Latino city, declared victory Wednesday on preliminary returns of absentee ballots.
Lopez moved 205 votes ahead of board veteran Audrey Yamagata-Noji late Tuesday, a week after polls showed him trailing in fourth place. About 28,000 ballots are still pending countywide, and final results for this and other races are expected later in the month.
In a rare news conference, Lopez, 48, blamed his slim margin on the Republican Party and the media for allegedly trying to demonize” him during his first term. Hermandad, the immigrant-services organization he runs in Santa Ana, was investigated by federal and state officials for alleged voter fraud and financial irregularities, but charges were never filed.
No other Latino elected official has ever been the target of sustained and aggressive vilification and demonization (as) during the course of my first term in office, local as this may be,” Lopez said, flanked by a handful of supporters at the organization’s headquarters.
His near-loss touched off speculation about how voters viewed the man who inspires strong feelings in his followers and detractors. Many supporters revere Lopez as a voice for the voiceless,” especially immigrants, while others criticize him for being brusque and unyielding.
There is not one individual in my opinion that has caused more progressive change for the people of Orange County than Nativo Lopez,” said Amin David of Los Amigos, a Latino-rights group.
Supporters said they expected a close race because nine candidates ran for three seats, dividing the vote. Newcomer Sal Tinajero, a teacher, won the most votes and had Lopez’s backing, followed by Rosemarie Avila, giving the five-member school board the largest Latino presence in Orange County.
But even in a crowded field, many expected Lopez’s high profile, incumbency and financial clout would make it easy to win a second term. He raised $102,000 by September, while other candidates had about a tenth of that; much of the money was spent on campaign workers and brochures.
Yet he still ran behind Avila, also a controversial figure. Avila opposed bilingual education in a district where two-thirds of the students are still learning English, and she favored the unpopular statewide ballot initiative for school vouchers.
It’s the same kind of thing that you find with more visible, more notorious and more well-known people at all levels,” said Santa Ana lawyer Jess Araujo. Because of his ideology, political views and tactics, he’s going to be liked a lot by some people and disliked a lot by others.”
While friends describe Lopez as clear-headed and loyal and admired for his fiery defense of the poor, detractors say he can be blunt and strong-willed, off-putting to those who seek a more conciliatory leader.
He really does act like somebody who has a chip on his shoulder,” said Republican activist Art Pedroza Jr. He just doesn’t know how to be nice to people he doesn’t agree with. At the school board level you’re not looking for that. You’re looking for someone who can build consensus.”
Tinajero, who ran on a slate with Lopez, said even he urged the veteran to relax.
The only advice I gave him is, You’ve got to smile more,’ ” Tinajero said.
Over the past year, Lopez has retreated from the spotlight. He campaigned quietly for a $145 million bond last year to build schools in the 59,000-student district, where many schools run on year-round schedules. And last week he skipped a news conference with other Latino leaders in part because he didn’t want the focus to be on him.
Instead, the charismatic, silver-haired leader has worked quietly tocultivate bipartisan support and backing from labor unions. Lopez gave $10,000 to Gov. Gray Davis’ campaign and won the endorsement of Sheriff Mike Carona and County Supervisor Charles Smith, both Republicans.
When we reached out to the community and said, Help us,’ Nativo was right there,” Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo said.
A lot of people were upset with me,” Smith said. (But) I have to work with Democrats and Republicans.”
Lopez’s absence from the spotlight, however, also cost him the publicity that politicians naturally seek when they run for re-election.
Besides backing the bond, he was among the first to champion contentious changes in the district — especially the Above the Mean program, which emphasizes math and literacy over other subjects — and the adoption of some of the toughest graduation requirements in Orange County. He has said he wants all students to have a shot at a four-year college.
Test scores are up at most schools this year, though they remain below average.
Nativo is not the type to stop someone in their tracks and say, I’m the one that created that, I’m the one who did this.’ He just did the work,” said board member Nadia Maria Davis.
Tuesday night, however, about 50 Lopez supporters went to the school board meeting and chanted his name, including his wife, Maria Ibarra. Lopez went outside to greet the strawberry pickers and Hermandad Mexicana workers who had assembled in the cold night air.
He told them they had registered 2,362 new voters during the campaign and collected 7,000 absentee ballots. After a moment, he was overcome by emotion.
You will always find your refuge in Hermandad Mexicana because we are with you,” he said, with tears in his eyes. Adelante. We have many more battles ahead because we are going to win.”
Call: (714) 796-4934
Call: (714) 704-3709