Original URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/politics/cal/la-me-nativo5feb05.story

Lopez Walloped in Schools Recall Vote
After a bitter campaign over language, ethnicity and district politics, the Santa Ana trustee concedes, replaced by Rob Richardson.
Los Angeles Times
February 5, 2003

By Daniel Yi and Claire Luna, Times Staff Writers

In a contentious recall election that has drawn national attention to issues such as bilingual education, class and ethnic divisions, Santa Ana school trustee and immigrants' rights activist Nativo V. Lopez conceded late Tuesday after unofficial results showed him losing soundly.

With all 18 precincts counted, recall forces took more than two-thirds of the vote. Turnout among the Santa Ana Unified School District's 60,601 registered voters was 21.1%, more than expected for a special election.

"This recall wasn't just about Nativo Lopez, it was to keep our people in check," a somber Lopez told supporters gathered at the offices of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Santa Ana. "We need to know how to accept defeat; we need to know how to learn from these campaigns so we can
come back and fight another day."

Tuesday's results were a victory for Santa Ana's City Hall leaders, including council members and the mayor, who have butted heads with Lopez for years and had thrown their support behind recall candidate Rob Richardson, a former trustee and city councilman who was elected to replace Lopez.

"The credibility of our district had been deeply damaged," Richardson said from a home in the Floral Park neighborhood where his supporters had gathered. "We need to completely overhaul the district."

At Richardson's side was Santa Ana Mayor Miguel A. Pulido, who said, "There is tremendous unrealized potential in this city. Unfortunately, our schools have been lagging behind. I am hopeful this election will turn them around."

Lopez, who has been battling an organized recall effort since March, was accused of illegally promoting
bilingual education and blamed for the slow pace of expansion and construction of schools in the severely crowded 61,000-student district. Much of the support for the recall came from residents of upscale north Santa Ana neighborhoods opposed to putting an elementary school in their midst, saying the real need for schools was elsewhere in the city.

Lopez had countered that those north-city residents didn't want poor Latino children attending school in
their neighborhood.

A second question on Tuesday's ballot was who among four candidates would replace Lopez should he be recalled. Lopez is in the middle of his second four-year term.

Richardson, 41, an administrator for the county and a Santa Ana planning commissioner, took nearly two-thirds of the votes. The other candidates were recall organizer and district parent Vivian Martinez, an office administrator; Lopez supporter Cindy Pettus, a community college instructor; and former Rancho Santiago Community College trustee John M. Raya, a businessman.

Lopez, head of the popular Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, was rallying his troops until the last moment. Tuesday afternoon. He gave an impassioned speech to dozens of supporters at a labor union office before they were loaded into vans and taken to working-class neighborhoods. There, they urged voters to go to the polls and stop the recall.

At the union headquarters late in the evening, Lopez, flanked by his tearful wife and one daughter, said, "If the electorate in our district did not respond to our message, it was not because we didn't work hard enough. The balance of force was completely lopsided."

Recall supporters raised almost three times what Lopez had, bringing total contributions to nearly $400,000, more than 20 times the usual amount for a school board race.

The contest threatened to boil over in the final days of the campaign when the district's superintendent,
Al Mijares, delivered a scathing rebuke of Lopez and his ally on the board, John Palacio.

Just two days before Tuesday's showdown, Mijares accused those trustees of "horrific ethical violations" in what he called their micromanagement of a $300-million-plus schools construction project, and of meddling in hiring decisions.

Lopez and Palacio, in turn, accused the superintendent, who was hired in 1994, of lacking leadership and vision. Mijares could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

The campaign to remove Lopez from the school board began last spring, when a group of parents and other residents accused him of hurting the academic performance of the district's mostly poor and Latino students by promoting bilingual education.

It was yet another controversy for Lopez, who has been a lightning rod ever since the East Los Angeles
native set up shop in Santa Ana in 1982.

In the 1990s, his group, Hermandad, and its sister organization of the same name in Los Angeles, were
accused of siphoning millions of dollars in federal education grants meant for English and citizenship
classes for immigrants. Federal and state officials said the groups and Lopez were unable to document
their claims of providing thousands of hours of instruction. Lopez has denied any wrongdoing. A lawsuit
by the state Department of Education against Lopez and Hermandad is scheduled for trial in March.

Lopez was elected to the school board in 1996 vowing to fight for immigrants and working-class families who constitute the majority of the district's constituency.

Many credit Lopez for making Santa Ana schools more representative of the community by hiring Latino administrators and teachers.

His opponents won backing from Ron Unz, co-author of Proposition 227, the 1998 voter-approved measure that sought to limit the teaching language for most students to English.

Unz, who has made a career of introducing similar measures in other states, infused the recall campaign
with more than $100,000 of his own money. He said toppling Lopez, a Latino-rights activist in a city
that is three-quarters Latino, would send a message that to be anti-bilingual education is not being anti-Latino.

About 15% of the 41,000 students in the district who are still learning English are in bilingual instruction,
meaning they receive most of their lessons in their native language while slowly acquiring English. The
statewide average is 10%. In the district, 92% of the students are Latino.

Lopez has countered that he is only defending the right of parents to choose Spanish instruction for their

Others joined the recall campaign. In the relatively affluent north-city neighborhood, residents opposed
to a planned elementary school in their area accused Lopez of race mongering. Lopez had said the residents, many of them white, objected to "poor, brown" children on their streets.

Critics also blamed Lopez and his allies on the board for the pace of school construction in the chronically overcrowded district despite voters' passing a $145-million bond initiative, Measure C, in 1999.

Lopez and Palacio have defended their roles, saying the district was challenged by the surging cost of land and that Mijares and his staff were to blame for delays in construction.



Election returns

Santa Ana Unified

School District

Recall of Nativo V. Lopez

*--* 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Yes 8,908 70.6 No 3,706 29.4


Short Term

(Lopez is recalled)

*--* 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % Rob Richardson 6,795 65.3 Vivian Martinez 1,919 18.4
Candy Pettus 1,153 11.1 John Raya 541 5.2


Elected candidates and approved measures -- or those leading with 99% of precincts reporting -- are
in bold type. Results are not official and could be affected by absentee ballots.

- Los Angeles Times