Santa Ana Leader Montejano Bids Area Farewell : Career change: Lawyer, lobbyist, college trustee and alleged object of inquiry puts it all behind him to move east.
Moments after his final meeting as a member of the Rancho Santiago College Board of Trustees last week, Rodolfo Montejano appeared more relieved than sad that his 20-year tenure on the panel had finally come to an end.
Diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, Montejano, a powerful Santa Ana attorney and lobbyist who grew up in the city’s Delhi barrio, said it was time to put a halt to what he called “life in the fast lane.” At age 53, he is preparing for a slower, less-stressful life in Evansville, Ind., with his wife and young daughter.
Montejano’s resignation from the college board, effective Monday, ends a 24-year career in public office that began with a seat on the Santa Ana Unified School District board in 1967. He denies speculation that his decision has anything to do with a reported Orange County Grand Jury investigation into his lobbying activities at City Hall.
“We were going to move in any event,” Montejano said. “It’s something we began talking about five years ago.”
At the height of the grand jury controversy last fall, Montejano announced his resignation as president of the Santiago Club, a community service organization he helped form in 1984, and at that time made public his plans to move out of state.
While the district attorney’s office has never confirmed that there was an investigation, at least two City Council members said they were called to testify before the panel, which was reportedly probing whether Montejano improperly pressured officials to permit construction of eight billboards that were larger than city codes allowed.
Montejano denies any impropriety and said he was never called to testify. He said his poor health is the sole reason for the changes in his life.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” Montejano said of the diabetic condition. “When I became ill, nothing else mattered. The political power no longer mattered, the perceptions of the community no longer mattered, and I was no longer interested in keeping up materially. It was like turning the page of a book.”
Shirley Ralston, who served on the seven-member college board with Montejano for 10 years, dismissed the claims against Montejano as “political innuendo and gossip.”
“I think he’s gotten a bum rap,” Ralston said. “He’s weathered (the controversy) well, but I think he’s internalized a lot of it. It has to be hurtful knowing that you believe you’re a good person and have done a lot for the community. You don’t expect anything in return, but you don’t expect people to beat up on you either.”
While Montejano has been highly visible as a member of the college board and as a community leader, it is his reputation as an influential, behind-the-scenes force in Santa Ana politics that has earned him the most notoriety in recent years.
“I realize he’s controversial politically, but that goes with the territory with Rudy,” said John Dowden, who along with Montejano and Carol Enos are original members of the college board.
“He’s been the eminence grise in Santa Ana and stepped on a lot of toes,” Dowden said. “But you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. I’ve never doubted his integrity and honesty, but a lot of people have, which is unfortunate.”
While Montejano acknowledges that his political style has at times ruffled some feathers, he offers no apologies.
“All I wanted to do was what needed to get done,” he said. “I’ve never been concerned with whether people liked it or not. When you’re in a leadership position, you’re always going to have people who are envious or critical.”
One of Montejano’s most vocal critics is Charles W. (Pete) Maddox. Although Maddox was elected to the college board just last year, he has been clashing with Montejano since Maddox’s days as a student journalist at the college in the late 1970s.
“In terms of the district and the community, I see Rudy’s career as a tragedy,” Maddox said. “We have this brilliant leader with all this talent who, in my opinion, put all of that talent in the wrong direction. What I’ve seen is a man who came from poverty, grew to social prominence then took advantage of those he left behind.”
Maddox is especially critical of Montejano’s role in El Mercado, a privately run swap meet that operated for three years in the parking lot of the college’s Santa Ana campus.
“Montejano’s involvement in the swap meet was the dirtiest political event ever to take place in Santa Ana,” Maddox charged.
The swap meet, which served mostly Latino customers, was operated by the Santiago Club which contracted with Norton Western Ltd., a company owned by City Councilman Richards L. Norton. The Santiago Club, Norton Western and the college split portions of the proceeds earned from the swap meet--an arrangement which Maddox contended was a conflict of interest.
Montejano has routinely dismissed Maddox’s charges and at this point appears uninterested in answering him or any of his other critics. He is much more animated when discussing his humble beginnings and the events which took him from the barrio to law school at UC Berkeley, where he was the only Latino in his class.
“We weren’t allowed to speak Spanish on the playground,” Montejano said of his days at Delhi Elementary School, at the time a school with a predominantly Latino student population.
“I could never understand why we couldn’t attend the all-Anglo school. After a while, you begin to realize that you are being treated differently and that cut very deeply into me. I swore that if I ever had anything to do with the school system, I would never let anything like that happen. Never.”
Montejano began forming career goals early on. It was in the second grade, after a school board member visited his classroom, that Montejano decided that he would one day sit on the board.
“He really broke a lot of invisible lines and has made it easier for other Latinos to cross those lines,” Ralston said. “It wasn’t easy in those days. You go back 25 years and things were quite different.”
Dowden said it is Montejano who deserves a great deal of credit for the growth of what was once Santa Ana College. Now called Rancho Santiago College, the institution has campuses in Santa Ana, Orange and Garden Grove, serving more than 40,000 students.
“He’s been a strength for the board,” Dowden said. “He’s been very forward-looking, and he knows Santa Ana well.”
“I think we helped to create excellence,” Montejano said of his years as a trustee. “We helped to bring acceptance and strong support to public education, and we showed what could be done.”
Although his wife Linda and 5-year-old daughter have already moved to Indiana, Montejano is vague on exactly when he will make the permanent move. He is renting a home in Santa Ana and says he is in the process of “phasing out” his law practice.
“I don’t believe in looking back,” he said. “I feel extremely happy, upbeat and fulfilled.”