What Were They Thinking?

The Democrats are heading toward a convention disaster, and the L.A. school board may be headed toward a superintendent disaster. Why don't politicians ever learn from their mistakes?

There’s been an impressive press hubbub over the political meltdown of State Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, whose smarts and political moderation coupled with serious telegenics placed him on the shortlist to be a future Republican governor of California. The most common reaction among those of us who have run into the Quackster and knew him to be a reasonable sort of person, liked by both Democrats and Republicans, has been, “What was he thinking?”

The Quackster’s outrageous scheme to let insurance companies off the hook for mistreating insured victims of the Northridge earthquake, and diverting the fines he exacted from them to organizations he appears to have controlled, is getting covered by the media like a Death Valley dust storm. So I thought I’d suggest two additional truly questionable activities being pursued by powerful political leaders and ask, “What were they thinking?”

I begin with the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is engaged in the tremendously complex logistical work of planning the Democratic National Convention in mid-August in downtown Los Angeles. For decades, this venerable body has thrown conventions and handled the delegates, media, and protestors who descended. The committee has done a decent job — if you don’t count the 1968 disaster in Chicago, where police beat the tar out of Vietnam War protesters and helped hand a victory to Republican Richard Nixon.

Given their party’s senseless Chicago implosion, you’d think the DNC would be expert at the techniques by which it can avoid riots during a convention.

And, given the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, when anarchists took to the streets and brought mayhem to the civil Pacific Northwest, you’d think the DNC would be acutely sensitive to handing any more fuel to the anarchists. By now, reason suggests, the DNC should be well into its meetings with legitimate activists to provide them plenty of space and airtime in August — the only way to ensure that the legit activists don’t bow to or join with the anarchists.

Instead, the DNC is treating legitimate activists in California like toddlers who can be relegated to the sandbox. With a massive homeless demonstration and Homeless Convention in the works and protest plans under way by unions and environmentalists, the committee wants to confine all rallies and gatherings to a teensy, weensy, eensy parking lot that is one-quarter block in size and a full block from the Staples Center.

What are they thinking?

Ted Hayes, a leader of the Homeless Convention and director of the Dome Village homeless encampment near Staples, where the convention will be held, is incredulous at what is going on. “The Democrats have not talked to hardly any of the protest groups besides us, and we are trying to educate these ignorant Democrats on the issue. And the issue is that if things get ugly in the streets downtown, and that is shown all over TV, you know it’s going to blow in South Central, on the Eastside, all over the place.”

The usually prescient Hayes believes — as do top brass in the Los Angeles Police Department — that anarchists and other violence-bent out-of-towners who embroiled Seattle in controversy plan to repeat the performance in L.A. Hayes’ very reasonable plan is to create a partnership between legitimate nonviolent activist groups, the police, and the Democratic National Committee.

In such a deal, Hayes says the homeless activists, union protesters, and others could be given open access to the streets around the Staples Center each evening, after the delegates and Al Gore are safely back at their hotels. Hayes has proposed that the city close down the streets and let them fill up with organized marches and rallies, which would give the activists the national TV coverage they crave.

“We local activists know how to keep a lid on the potentially wild elements here,” says Hayes. “But more important, we can be a real damper to the anarchists by keeping our ears and eyes open and acting as a huge united front for civil public protest.”

In other words, the homeless as civic leaders. It’s a decidedly fresh notion.

LAPD brass have met with Hayes and indicated they are willing to discuss such a plan, if the safety of the delegates is assured. But the DNC so far wants to confine protesters to a small area at the corner of Francisco Street and Olympic Boulevard.

“If they persist with this protest pit idea,” says Hayes, “they will create a situation where the shit will fly big-time. After the Democrats leave town, the city will have to spend all the money it earned from the convention to take care of the lawsuits, the police overtime, and the damage.”

DNC officials had better wise up quick. Hayes is already raising funds for the huge tents and other big-cost items the homeless need to hold their convention at Dome Village, and the unions are holding secretive protest-planning sessions. (To volunteer or contribute to the Homeless Convention, call 213-955-9389.)

My advice to the DNC, meanwhile, is: Remember Chicago.

Since I’m on the subject of ignorant political bodies who fail to remember their own history and seem bound to repeat the mistakes of the past, I must sadly turn to the bizarre goings-on in the private offices of the board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

This reform-minded board, which voters swept into power last June in disgusted reaction to the cronyism, incompetence, racial identity politics, and nepotism of the past board, spent weeks deliberating its choice for a new reformist superintendent.

But the deliberations made me nervous as hell. I felt like I had been gut-punched when I read in the Daily News several days ago that the seven-member board unanimously wanted Univision executive Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and former chief of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Cisneros privately told the board he would never take the job, and by sheer luck the children of Los Angeles escaped one of the worst decisions by a political body to come down the pike since the Police Commission hired Willie Williams to be police chief.

Cisneros is, by all accounts, a very nice person. A smart man. A civic leader. He is also a person who throughout his time in Washington, D.C. showed not a spark of ability to reform a major governmental organization. He was popular as mayor of San Antonio, but like many political leaders who vault from a small and simple venue to a large and complex one, he proved incapable of fighting entrenched forces in Washington.

Indeed, Cisneros’ na?vet? about power quickly led him into trouble in Washington, and he became the subject of a corruption investigation. As the world now knows, Cisneros amateurishly tried to cover up the fact that he had been paying a mistress $50,000 a year and lied to the FBI. The brouhaha over his cover-up ruined him politically.

Cisneros, then, is not a reformer, by any serious yardstick. He has extremely poor judgment under pressure, extremely poor judgment in his personal life, and extremely bland credentials as a bureaucrat.

Yet the school board wanted him for the next superintendent unanimously.

What were they thinking?

Let me take a stab at answering that. They were thinking skin color. They were thinking politically correct — just like the last school board, a pack of highly politicized squabblers who voters jettisoned. Cisneros is a brown guy, and he has a big name in both Washington and Latino power circles. Bingo, he’s their man.

As my friend Larry Elder would say, good Lord!

But it gets much worse. Cisneros was, and is, a leading proponent of the failed bilingual fad in the United States, which in California alone created an estimated 1 million Latino students functionally illiterate in English and without hope of academic or economic success. The bilingual movement in the public schools, which was really a “Spanish-only” fad, was banned by voters under Proposition 227 in 1998. But Cisneros decried Prop. 227 as a vicious attack on Latino culture that would plunge immigrant children into failure.

Cisneros is a classic fad-worshipping, mushy-thinking liberal of the 1970s variety, completely out of step with how to deal with academic reform in classrooms that are dominated by poor and minority students.

But remember, they wanted him unanimously. Reformers Caprice Young, Mike Lansing, Genethia Hayes, and David Tokofsky, and emerging reformer Valerie Fields, somehow were thinking and acting just like the antireformist buffoons who voters tossed off the school board.

I am inconsolable over this piece of news — because even though Cisneros wisely turned them down, it suggests extremely bad things about the psychology of the school board members and the ghastly criteria they apparently were using to select the new superintendent.

When I need consoling, I often call Joe Hicks, a clear-thinking opponent of identity politics and director of the city Department of Human Relations. Hicks told me he fervently hopes the big push for Cisneros merely shows that the board was “trying to name a superintendent who is out of the ordinary, outside the box.”

Hicks chooses to believe that their passion for Cisneros does not mean the board is starting to bow to racial politics. “I consistently argued to Genethia and others that the board needed to show real leadership and say under no uncertain terms was our search affected by even the suggestion of wanting a certain race, ethnicity, or gender, or any of that politically correct crap,” says Hicks, adding that it was imperative that the new appointee be able to “kick butt at the district headquarters on North Grand.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the board unanimously selected former Colorado Governor Roy Romer as L.A.’s new superintendent. He’s a white guy, so at least the board listened to Hicks about racial politics. But Romer, though an able chief executive of a sparsely populated state and well-connected in the Democratic party, is hardly known as a kick-ass reformer. He’s also 71.

I wish Romer made me feel better, but he doesn’t. The board deliberated itself into a corner as several candidates bailed out and only Romer and a couple of other also-rans remained. Romer wanted the job badly and campaigned openly for it. But is he the kind of human cattle prod who will shock L.A. Mummified out of its low-achievement doldrums? I doubt it.

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