Nava Struggling to Regain Political Prominence of ‘70s : Campaign: Latino candidate has attracted little public notice. Misconceptions also hinder comeback attempt.


It was a rare moment in the limelight for Los Angeles mayoral candidate Julian Nava, and all it got him was a loud chorus of boos.

Mostly on impulse, Nava declared in a December debate that resident aliens--foreigners living legally in the U.S.--should be allowed to vote in some local elections.

Such residents must pay taxes and are subject to military service, he reasoned, so it’s only fair they should have a vote. Furthermore, a number of states and cities around the country permit limited voting, so why not Los Angeles?


The reaction was immediate: vociferous hoots from the audience.

Later, on radio talk shows, callers attacked him repeatedly. Many misunderstood his position, thinking he called for voting rights for illegal immigrants.

“I caught hell for that,” Nava said.

But beyond that battering, Nava--a former U.S. ambassador and ex-Los Angeles school board member--has attracted little public notice as he campaigns for the April 20 election.

In a recent Times poll, only 2% of those surveyed said they would vote for him. Compared to the funds of leading candidates, his campaign war chest is puny. And even his onetime status as the only politically prominent Latino in the race evaporated when Deputy Mayor Linda Griego jumped in.

“I need ink!” he exclaimed recently. “I’m damn near invisible in this race, no matter how much sense or nonsense I say!”

It wasn’t always this way for the 65-year-old Nava, a respected college professor who was a local political heavyweight in the 1960s and ‘70s.

A Mexican barber’s son who holds a Harvard Ph.D., Nava won a 1967 election to become the first Latino on the school board. He was twice reelected, serving a total of 12 years. In 1979, he became President Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Mexico, the first Mexican-American to hold that job.


Replaced when Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, Nava almost disappeared from public attention, returning to his teaching duties at Cal State Northridge and taking on a series of entrepreneurial ventures, among them a Mexican oyster farm.

By the time he launched his mayoral campaign last fall, his political cachet had faded considerably--to the point where some label him a political has-been.

Many liberal Latinos view him “not only as someone whose time has come and gone, but who also is raising the wrong issues and, symbolically, has become passe,” said Prof. Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

An engaging man of eclectic interests, Nava acknowledges that his odds of winning are long. But he insists he has a chance. His campaign strategy, he said, “worked in three school board races.”

He is aiming much of his effort at Latinos and other ethnic minorities, hoping to pull enough votes to survive the April primary and face off against another candidate in the June 8 runoff.

Casting himself as a “citizen-candidate” with no debts to local interest groups, Nava has stressed fighting crime and creating jobs. His diplomatic tenure, he tells listeners, gave him the skills and contacts to encourage trade between Los Angeles and foreign countries, particularly Mexico. He also touts himself as the only candidate for mayor who has won a citywide election.


But even among Latinos, his campaign is having problems.

Many are suspicious of him because of a widespread perception that he backed former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates in the political firestorm that followed the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Many Latinos held Gates responsible for alleged police abuse of poor Latinos. Nava has denied he was a Gates supporter.

Moreover, Nava probably will lose some Latino votes to Griego, whom he often attacks.

And despite his emphasis on Latino voters and issues, Nava’s candidacy has generated little excitement within the Latino political Establishment.

“I don’t think that we believe he can win,” said City Councilman Mike Hernandez, who is backing Griego.

Nonetheless, he praised Nava for raising issues that are important to Latinos and serving as a counterweight to candidate Tom Houston, who has been labeled a racist by some minority politicians for his campaign blasts at illegal immigrants.

A native of Boyle Heights and the son of immigrant parents, Nava enlisted in the Navy out of high school near the end of World War II. He was trained as an aircraft tail gunner but saw no combat.

He got his first taste of politics in 1949 as a “sniper”--someone who nails up campaign signs--in the pioneering City Council campaign of Edward R. Roybal, a Latino who went on to win 15 terms in Congress.


With help from the GI Bill, Nava attended East Los Angeles Junior College and Pomona College before entering Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in history.

In 1967, with Chicano activism a rising tide in Los Angeles, Nava jumped into politics as a school board candidate, winning strong support from middle-class Anglos as he upset incumbent Charles Reed Smoot. He lost a 1970 race for state superintendent of schools.

As school board president for two terms, Nava advocated bilingual education and mandatory busing to desegregate schools, becoming a target of antibusing forces in the late 1970s. He resigned his seat in 1979, just before voters approved a change to elect board members by district rather than citywide.

Nava said he was departing for family reasons. But some noted that the new rules would have forced him to run in a west San Fernando Valley district that was then an antibusing stronghold or move from his longtime Northridge home to another district.

Appointed ambassador to Mexico later that year, Nava worked to persuade the Mexican government to export more oil to replenish U.S. military stocks depleted by the Arab oil embargo. Replaced after less than two years, he subsequently became involved in a number of ventures in Mexico.

He built desks for schoolchildren in Zacatecas and invested in a Cancun hotel. He served as a go-between for a group of Mexican farmers and a Japanese firm that financed a multimillion-dollar vegetable cooperative in the Mexicali Valley.


He also aided in setting up an oyster farm in Baja California, at one point rushing frozen oyster larvae in his car from California to the farm.

“We had a ball. You go down and camp out on the beach. Drink cold beer and eat fresh-caught lobsters. . . . I got the eternal gratitude of the (Mexican) people, but it doesn’t earn you any votes,” he said, chuckling.

A vigorous man, Nava has been camping in Eastern Europe and four-wheeling around Mayan ruins in Mexico. He has lived in several countries. Recently, he worked on documentary films about life in China and Spain. With his family, he built a 3,600-square-foot log house in Big Bear.

Nava also has lectured widely in the United States and abroad and written several books and many articles on U.S.-Latin American relations. He has three children, including twin daughters who are doctoral candidates at UCLA.

His close identification with Latino issues notwithstanding, some observers say his appeal among Latinos has been undermined by a common impression that he supported Gates in the ex-chief’s battle with Mayor Tom Bradley.

That belief grows out of Nava’s leadership in the campaign against Proposition F, the police reform measure overwhelmingly approved by voters last June. The measure, recommended by the Christopher Commission, which investigated the Los Angeles Police Department after the King beating, gave City Hall officials greater authority to hire and fire police chiefs.


Nava also was involved in a short-lived effort to recall Bradley for his efforts to fire Gates.

Nava insists he did not support Gates personally but only wanted him to receive due process after his controversial suspension by the city’s Police Commission, an action later reversed by the City Council. Nava described himself as a “strong critic of Chief Gates” and said that he often challenged Gates as a member of an LAPD Latino advisory panel.

He opposed the police reform measure, he said, because he felt it would politicize the LAPD. He was involved in the Bradley recall not over Gates but because of other conflicts with the mayor, he said.

Nava said the perception that he was pro-Gates has hurt his campaign among Latinos, and he blames the media for wrongly portraying him as a champion of Gates.

“That misstatement was a mortal blow,” he said, adding that he has been assailed by critics from “as far away as Madrid.”

But Regalado, the Cal State L.A. professor, said many Latinos believe Nava is “inseparable by association” from Gates.


Nava’s opposition to Proposition F had many liberal Latinos feeling that Nava “is very much out of touch” with their community, Regalado said.

“Some felt that Nava was the right person at the right time to open doors 20 to 25 years ago,” he said. But after the Gates controversy, he added, many Latinos think Nava is “not someone who can lead us into the 21st Century.”

Profiles of the 11 major candidates for mayor of Los Angeles are running in order of appearance on the ballot. Next: Linda Griego.

Profile: Julian Nava

Born: June 19, 1927.

Residence: Northridge.

Education: M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University.

Career highlights: former U.S. ambassador to Mexico; former three-term member of the Los Angeles Board of Education; longtime professor of history at California State University Northridge.

Interests: Carpentry; travel; horseback riding.

Family: Married, three children.

Quote: “We must respect one another and work together to rebuild L.A.”

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