Opposition to Lopez cut across city

Analysis finds the school trustee lost his strongholds in the recall election

SANTA ANA ? Nativo Lopez lost his seat on Santa Ana Unified’s school board because voters in every part of the city decided it was time for a change, an analysis of voting patterns shows. Lopez lost in every precinct ? from neighborhoods north of 17th Street, among the wealthiest and whitest in the city, to the immigrant leader’s traditional strongholds in the overwhelmingly Latino central part of town, according to a precinct analysis. In only one precinct was the vote even close; in most, the recall was a lopsided winner. Even in absentee ballots, previously a source of Lopez strength, he lost by a 2-to-1 margin. In his 2000 re-election, absentee ballots saved Lopez in his bid to keep his school board seat. Though Audrey Yamagata Noji was leading on election night by 131 votes, she correctly predicted Lopez would beat her when all the still- uncounted absentee ballots were tallied. Recall strategist Tim Whitacre said mailers were sent out to likely voters weeks before the election asking them to vote by absentee. “We knew if we went after absentees and could get them to return their ballots, that’s one less person we had to chase on election day,” Whitacre said.

Lopez refused to comment Wednesday, but in the past has said many of his supporters are immigrants ineligible to vote. Speaking to supporters Tuesday night, he said the election results did not represent his true base of support.

Lopez had charged that the recall was really about the board’s controversial decision to build Lorin Griset Elementary on the old Farmers Insurance site near Memory Lane and the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway. Neighbors strongly opposed the school, and voting north of 17th Street, nearest Griset, vividly demonstrated their anger. The precincts there had the heaviest turnout and some of the biggest anti-Lopez margins.

The area is the most heavily white and affluent area in a district where most of students are Hispanic and poor. Neighbors said they opposed the school because there was no need for it in their area, but the contrast gave both the Griset controversy and the recall an ethnic tinge. One day after the election, there was no way to know the demographics of who voted. But the results suggest the recall crossed ethnic lines. Lopez lost central-city precincts dominated by Mexican immigrants, people Lopez has spent his career championing as head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. Voter Mary Helen Milanes, a naturalized citizen from Mexico, said she voted to recall Lopez because she supported strong English instruction for students. Lopez’s support of parents’ right to choose bilingual education for their children was at the center of the recall.

“I hate it when people say because he’s a Latino, he’s going to do things for Latinos,” Milanes said. “I think they should be doing it for the community.”

Next week, Lopez’s replacement, Rob Richardson, will be sworn into office to fulfill the remainder of a term that ends in 2004. Richardson, 42, and other board members will face a host of problems, including a state budget shortfall of $17 million for the district through June and a stalled ? and controversial ? construction program for new schools. Recall supporters said micromanaging by Lopez and board ally John Palacio had kept the program from building schools with $145 million in bond money approved in 1999. The two were also criticized for accepting campaign contributions from program consultants and vendors. “I’m looking forward to working with the entire board,” Richardson said Wednesday. “Clearly there has been a mandate expressed by the community in terms of their desire for operations to be above board and transparent.”

Richardson, who served on the board from 1987-1990, said he wants to evaluate the performance of district contractors, develop an ethics policy for board members and return authority to Superintendent Al Mijares. On Sunday, Mijares wrote a letter to the editor highly critical of Lopez and Palacio. Richardson, board President Sal Tinajero, Noji and Rosemarie Avila all say they support Mijares.

Palacio did not return phone calls. Whitacre said Palacio will be asked to resign and, if he refuses, a recall will be launched. Richardson, who graduated from Santa Ana High and University of California, Los Angeles, was supported by the entire City Council, many recall volunteers and Noji. Richardson, also a former city councilman, said he does not know if he will resign from the city planning commission.

“I always found him to be open,” said Noji, who has served on the board with Richardson. “He’s very much tied to the city and (the board hasn’t) had good relations lately, and I think that will help.”

Lopez’s campaign sent out mailers warning parents that Richardson had supported Proposition 187 in 1994. Richardson said he regrets his support of the overturned measure to end services to illegal immigrants.

“Every child that is in our school district will be served, and they’ll be served well,” Richardson said.

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