Cheers and Hisses

Cowards in high places kept screwing up L.A. in 1998, but everyday heroes -- like some ballsy LAUSD teachers -- continued to stand up to them

My friend Patt Morrison once explained to me–one evening over martinis during which we devised a plan to fix Los Angeles, but by morning could no longer recall our wondrous solution–that society’s true unsung heroes are not soldiers or even firemen, but underlings and office workers and dreamers, who stick their necks out when most people keep their heads safely tucked in.

The tucked-in types who dominate L.A. are not simply non-heroes. They are, of course, cowards. And in 1998, Los Angeles seemed to groan under the vast weight of its cowards–often influential and powerful people who sneaked through the year with lame excuses, chronic lying, and rapid averting of the eyes.

Who could not snort derisively, as did I, at the final words of 1998 uttered by School Board President Vicky Castro, a seat warmer who clutches desperately at power, unable to recognize her deep culpability in ruining the school system?

Last Wednesday, Castro huffily demanded during a tour of the Belmont Learning Complex “Who was responsible for doing a half-baked job?” in constructing the outrageously expensive, $150-million Taj Mahal, a towering 5,000-student high school that, it turns out, is rather unfortunately being erected over big, fat pockets of explosive methane gas.

Well, Vicky, as a Coward of 1998, you were responsible for baking that putrid pie.

In fact, Castro was so obsessed with gaining political points by forcing through the construction of Belmont–the costliest school in the U.S.–that she used scarce public school funds to bus in crowds of her partisans who chanted at school board meetings on behalf of building Belmont immediately. Los Angeles has always raped its land. Why should this generation be the first to actually say no to its own greed?

The board, whose president at that time was Vicky’s pal and Co-Coward of 1998, the amoral Jeff Horton, buckled under the pressure Castro had created. So the L.A. school district wrongly began construction, even as the State of California withheld funds due to its extensive concerns over how and why such a grandiose school was being rushed through.

Contrast such reckless disregard for children and scarce school funds with the quiet heroes of the L.A. schools. Most of the heroes were mere teachers with little power and no phony “protesters” available at their beck and call.

Doug Lasken, Stefanie Schwartz, and Kathleen Salisbury stand out. They knew that, when it came to the farcical mono-lingual Spanish program, which the cultural ideologues had cleverly dubbed “bilingual education,” the Emperor had no clothes and had, in fact, broken out in huge, pointy goosebumps.

Lasken and Schwartz are 1998 Heroes because they forced the incompetent leadership at United Teachers Los Angeles–a union that daily lies to its teacher members and works to oppose classroom reform–to hold a vote to find out if L.A. teachers really supported bilingual education.

For years, the troubled bilingual program was blindly promoted by UTLA union bosses like Day (Payday) Higuchi and his close adviser and Chief of Public Prevarication, Theresa Montoya. Both have richly earned their titles as Co- Cowards of 1998.

Salisbury is a 1998 Hero who wrote in the Voices section of the L.A. Times about how badly bilingual education was failing among immigrant kids. She detailed the political pressure teachers like herself faced from their peers and supervisors to pretend that it worked. And she was later viciously attacked within L.A. Unified for coming clean with the public.

These seemingly powerless people sent cold waves of fear through the cowards at the top in L.A.

Lasken, Schwartz, and a volunteer group of teachers nearly won their votes on bilingual education, losing in the final tally only 48 percent to 52 percent in a city where teachers had been systematically brainwashed to believe in bilingual education. Yet as the vote showed, nearly half the city’s teachers knew bilingual education was a disaster.

Nobody at the UTLA, to this day, speaks for those teachers. Higuchi is so afraid of Lasken and his simple courage that the UTLA newspaper won’t even print Lasken’s views in its Higuchi-controlled pages.

“It’s funny,” says Lasken, “but teachers believe I have really hurt myself by standing up against the union leaders and against bilingual education.” Lasken, once an avid teacher of bilingual education, muses, “Most teachers are afraid to speak out about what is wrong in the classrooms. But they will be stronger, and happier, if they do. That’s what happened to me.”

Nor has Kathleen Salisbury been cowed by the public trashing she received from Latino activists. She recently transferred to Jefferson New Middle School, where, she tells me, unused cartons of Spanish-only books are available to teachers, but English-language books are scarce.

Ballsy as ever, Salisbury told me, “I hope very soon to hear about some lawsuits” against L.A. bureaucrats who are actively preventing the teaching of English reading and writing to immigrant kids, which is now illegal under Prop. 227.

Although the schools are the key societal battleground between the heroes and the cowards in Los Angeles today, other important struggles unfolded in 1998, including a fight for the soul of City Hall, if there can be such a thing.

Most people have never heard of Rudy Cordova, a low-income college student who gets around Pico Union and East Los Angeles by bicycle.

Cordova led the thwarted effort to recall City Councilman Mike Hernandez, the coke-addicted and race-baiting bail bondsman who rose to power on the City Council and used his office to engage in the racial finger pointing that, after the 1992 riots, had finally begun to wane.

The well-to-do residents of Mt. Washington and Angelino Heights, who live in Hernandez’s district but chose to be cowards, did not lift a finger to help Cordova and his group of poor Latino volunteers. For months, the volunteers desperately tried to raise the paltry $15,000 needed to gather the 13,000 signatures needed to place the Hernandez recall question on the ballot.

Nor did the city’s ultrarich lift a finger. After all, since the rich never venture into the litter-strewn, tawdry, cyclone-fenced neighborhoods of Glassell Park or Pico Union, why should they care if one of the 15 seats on the City Council was occupied by a drug felon who styled himself as the official hater of white Westsiders?

Thus no money came forth from such outspoken political contributors as David Geffen, who handed $50,000 to gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis and was busy completing the lavish decorating of his $50 million mansion. (No, that’s not a typo.) So busy, in fact, that he could not donate the $15,000 needed to place the Hernandez recall on the ballot.

And where was help from Rupert Murdoch, a man who clearly disliked Hernandez for opposing a proposal by Murdoch and others to expand the facilities at Dodger Stadium to possibly include football?

Murdoch, worth $2 billion, was in the process of dumping his wife to chase after an underling many years his junior. Yet a tiny check from Murdoch and the voters in Hernandez’s district would have been given the chance to vote him out.

But my favorite missing hero from 1998 was Donald T. Sterling, the fat-cat owner of Westwood high rises, named as L.A.’s supposed Humanitarian of the Year by Jewish leaders.

Apparently, Sterling could not be bothered with actually helping Los Angeles. He was too busy going to three or four dozen dinners thrown throughout 1998 to honor him. I lost count after the Times published Sterling’s pasty face in huge half-page ads for the 10th or 20th time, and nausea clouded my math skills.

I could not find a single news story in 1998 explaining the wonderful sacrifices Sterling has made. I know he did not reach out to the poor of Pico Union, so ashamed of Councilman Hernandez that they hoped he would resign, but too broke to pay the simple cost of gathering the signatures needed for a vote to remove him.

Geffen, Murdoch, Sterling, and their ilk are all big talkers, pushy beyond belief when there is money to be grubbed. Yet they are all Los Angeles Co- Cowards of 1998.

Despite the rot and disinterest at the top, everyday heroes who can change the city kept popping up and demanding to be heard.

I think of one Hero of 1998, Marcia Hanscom, director of Wetlands Action Network, who, on a tiny budget, stood up in court to DreamWorks SKG and a savvy group of Wall Street and Beverly Hills investors who want to wipe out the last major wetland in Southern California and usher in a new, horrendous, 13,000-condo minicity on L.A.’s badly congested Westside.

Hanscom is one of the few people brave enough to point out that the sicko plan for the Ballona Wetlands (which should instead be restored to its pristine condition of 50 years ago and lightly developed with boardwalks for nature- viewing by school kids and all Angelenos) is being promoted using Steven Spielberg’s proposed DreamWorks studio as an evil Trojan horse to make the rest of the project seem palatable.

Horribly, the development is a huge, cracker-box condo community that will be bigger than Brentwood. Last month, pushed by another Co-Coward of 1998, City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, City Hall agreed to seek $87 million in public funds for the grossly rich wetland developers to promote “affordable housing” in the crass, new minicity.

Hanscom called me one day, stunned after receiving a severe tongue-lashing from the L.A. bureau chief for the New York Times who was so pro-DreamWorks and so blind to the environmental devastation being contemplated that he lambasted Hanscom as an “eco-terrorist” and refused to quote her in a story about the Ballona fight.

“Why do people act like this in L.A.?” Hanscom asked. “Don’t they know we are the most cemented, black-topped, park-poor, overdeveloped city in America? Don’t they know people need beauty and greenery just to survive?”

They do know. But they are cowards who put money before honor or guts, and buck-passing before vision. Los Angeles has always raped its land. Why should this generation be the first to have to actually say no to its own greed? Spielberg, the most disappointing Coward of 1998, is too busy saving Private Ryan to save L.A.

Reviewing the many-pronged wars between the cowards and heroes of 1998 inspired in me a new plan for fixing Los Angeles, not fueled by the genius that comes with drinking several martinis with Patt Morrison, but just as exemplary:

Doug Lasken, Stefanie Schwartz, and Kathleen Salisbury get elected to the L.A. Unified board, Rudy Cordova or another Hernandez recall volunteer becomes a city councilman, and Marcia Hanscom is awarded a MacArthur genius grant to fight Spielberg.

The heroes of Los Angeles in 1998 were all normal everyday people. Yet given a level playing field on which to fight the city’s cowards, these heroes could turn Los Angeles around.

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