Lopez recall has Santa Ana transfixed

The drama can only escalate as trustee's foes turn in petitions for a vote on his ouster

SANTA ANA—It seems like little else matters here these days. The upcoming City Council election with 10 candidates? Yawn. The governor’s race? Boorrrriinng. But the campaign to remove school board member Nativo Lopez, now that’s got the town talking.

And shouting. And shoving. And spying. And spitting.

On Thursday, opponents of the school board member submitted 14,826 signatures to the Orange County Registrar of Voters, likely paving the way for a recall election, which would cost roughly $73,600 and could be held as early as January. Opponents needed 8,624 signatures. The registrar has 30 days to verify the signatures.

The efforts to remove the charismatic and controversial Lopez, who was first elected to the board in 1996, have been tumultuous. Santa Ana police have been called out at least six times to quell shouting matches. Earlier this week, police arrested a Los Angeles man collecting signatures for allegedly spitting at a Lopez supporter.

And bitter disputes also have cropped up in front of stores, where confused customers have been sandwiched between the two yelling sides.

Lopez is widely considered the most powerful player on the five-member school board, and opponents have made him a symbol of problems with the Santa Ana Unified School District – low test scores, crowding, a high number of teachers without full credentials. They also say he pushes Spanish instruction when they want their children taught in English.

Lopez, a high-profile countywide leader for many immigrants, has denied this. He has pushed for the district to follow Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot initiative that sought to end bilingual education. Under the measure, parents can request waivers. In Santa Ana, about one in 10 students is in bilingual education.

Supporters of Lopez accuse the other side of racially attacking a hero to many immigrants who have no voice. And they say Lopez actually has worked to reduce crowding and improve scores.

Observers and participants say they can’t remember the last time something like this gripped the city. It’s created alliances of white residents from affluent neighborhoods with working-class Latinos. And it’s created divisions between immigrant Latinos and U.S.-born Latinos.

“It’s getting ugly,” said Lopez opponent Veronica Gonzalez, who says she has been followed and photographed by Lopez supporters who have called her a traitor to her race.

At a Target store in Santa Ana, red-shirted Lopez opponents on Thursday clashed with Lopez backers who had fanned out into the parking lot so they could be the first to approach potential voters as they got out of their cars. The rapid-response Lopez team has appeared at numerous signature- gathering locations soon after the signature gatherers arrive.

“People that know Nativo call us and let us know where (signature gatherers) are at,” said Sergio Trujillo, a Lopez volunteer who is studying at Cypress College to be a Spanish teacher.

At one point, a shopper leaving the store was surrounded in the parking lot by a supporter and an opponent, speaking simultaneously to the customer in Spanish and English for nearly a half-hour. Finally, a store employee escorted the shopper to her car.

Another shopper, Joanna Aranda, spoke of the tension she feels in her neighborhood over the issue.

“(Lopez opponents) meet near my house every weekend,” said the 21-year-old mother of three. “They’re really intense. I’ve been trying to keep my distance. I don’t want to get in the middle.”

At the anti-Lopez table, Sabas Porras was given a lawn sign with the international “prohibited” symbol across Lopez’s name. He said he’d taken his two school-age kids out of the neighborhood elementary school because he felt the predominant use of Spanish was slowing them down.

“If (Nativo) is the most powerful member of the school board, he’s got to step up to the plate and listen to the parents,” Porras said. “The whole reason I took them out was that so many kids were speaking Spanish. They need to start getting them to speak English.”

Lopez says the recall effort has nothing to do with the issues raised by his opponents. He says the opposition is a backlash over the proposed Lorin Griset Elementary School that he and other school board members supported.

“The only issue is the school north of 17th Street,” he said. The school would be built on nine vacant acres in what has traditionally been a mostly white part of town where the median home price is $361,500.

That proposed school has sparked major debate in the community, spurring accusations of racism and classism.

Lopez says opponents of the proposed school have publicly and privately threatened to recall the four Latino school board members who voted for the school.

The recall efforts are the latest in a series of controversies surrounding Lopez, who is also the leader of the immigrant-rights group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. The State Department of Education has sued Hermandad for millions of dollars in grants that the department says can’t be accounted for. Nicole Winger, department spokeswoman, said the suit is pending. Lopez has denied any wrongdoing.

Lopez, despite his popularity with many immigrants, barely won re-election in 2000 by 500 votes even though he spent more than $100,000, an extraordinary amount in a local school board race. Each of the other candidates spent about one-tenth that amount.

Many of his ardent supporters are immigrants who are becoming citizens, preventing them from voting. But Lopez often points out that they’re taxpayers and deserve his representation.

Lopez is also a countywide leader for many Latino immigrants. Most recently he was in Anaheim, pushing the city to allow a Gigante supermarket. He’s also been active in protesting the presence of immigration officers in the Anaheim jail.

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