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SITTING AT THE TABLE

Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a fellow at the New America Foundation

For all its racially tinged rhetoric and human-relations sermonizing, the fight over the ouster of L.A. school Supt. Ruben Zacarias doesn’t have all that much to do with race. It has even less to do with Zacarias. Instead, at the heart of the debate is a power struggle between two elites--one emerging, the other established--with each jockeying for influence over a dysfunctional yet integral part of L.A. public infrastructure. Hysterical oratory and empty threats of mass demonstrations may wind up damaging the credibility of the Latino political establishment in the short run, but its goals are essentially the same as those held by earlier waves of ethnic politicians who aimed to plant themselves squarely in the mainstream. Rather than a harbinger of an increasingly race-based Latino agenda, the outrage over the Zacarias affair is one more indicator of the emergence of a new brand of establishmentarian Latino politics.

The June election of a slate of four reformist candidates to the school board was far more than just a victory for their No. 1 supporter, Mayor Richard Riordan. The campaign also heralded the return of the city’s long-absent monied elite to the local political arena. To bankroll his choices, Riordan established the Coalition for Kids, to which he encouraged wealthy Angeleno businessmen to contribute the kind of cash not normally associated with school-board races. His successful bid to shake up the board presaged last month’s showdown over Zacarias. In their haste and indignation over the state of the city’s schools, the well-intentioned reformers did what generations of reformers have done before: They stepped on the toes of an ethnic political elite that has its own valid interests in influencing the policy and course of L.A.'s schools.

An ancient adage holds that if you want to depose the king, you had better kill him. No matter what one feels about Zacarias’ performance as superintendent, Board President Genethia Hayes and her reformist majority badly bungled their attempt to undermine his power. Ironically, their avoidance of public comment when appointing former board member Howard C. Miller as the district’s new CEO may have been inspired by a fear that a more direct attack on Zacarias would have sparked a Latino public-relations backlash. But by circumventing normal protocol, the board intensified the outrage caused by its actions. Board members also handed the Latino political establishment the stick with which to beat them.

Many parent activists blindly support Zacarias simply because he is Latino. Others see him as a welcome presence at the doors of an important institution in their family’s lives. In his two-year tenure, Zacarias increased the number of parent centers in city schools and inspired greater participation by immigrant parents. But the key political players in the crisis sparked by Zacarias’ demotion--state Sen. Richard Polanco and L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina--are less concerned about the superintendent’s head than they are about being excluded from the high-level discussions that led to an offer to buy out his contract.

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Bombastic rhetoric may hold that all Latinos were excluded from the decision to hire Miller, but the truth is, one well-placed Latina official was purposely left out of the loop. When school board member Victoria Castro was kept ignorant, by extension, so were her allies in the tight-knit world of Latino politics. By contrast, Miller was reintroduced to the district last summer by Riordan ally and mayoral candidate Steven L. Soboroff and was anointed by the Riordan-backed board majority. In short, the reformist clique trumped the Latino political network--and it erupted in a rage.

The history of ethnic urban politics predicts such clashes. This is not the first time that reformers have used heavy-handed tactics while misreading the ethnic political landscape of a city. Do-gooders invariably end up the nemesis of ethnic political bosses. Reformers in the late 19th and early-20th centuries considered the Irish machines the epitome of evil. In 1898, after years of battling the Irish boss of Chicago’s 19th Ward, Jane Addams, founder of the settlement-house movement, advised other reformers on how to deal with ethnic politicians. She concluded that reformers should “obtain a like sense of identification” with the group they seek to benefit by reform. Only then could anything be accomplished.

A century ago, well-intentioned elites often came off as condescending or patronizing when turning their attention to urban ills. In the late 19th century in New York, both German and Russian Jewish immigrants were lukewarm to reform sentiment. The reformers’ Protestant evangelical zeal and air of gentility struck newcomers as alien and contrary to their interests. Some immigrants even suspected the aristocratic WASPs of wanting to convert them to Christianity.

In the early 20th century, civil-service reform became one of the passions of the Boston Protestant elite. There and in many other cities across the country, Irish American political networks had laid claim to the public sector. They initially sought to dominate the protective services--police and fire departments--as a means to leverage greater political and economic advantage. Their goal of gaining influence in the public sector was a traditional strategy to achieve mobility among many ethnic groups in their early stages of social integration. Reform elites routinely clashed with ethnic interests when they attempted to wrest control of civic institutions. Although the press routinely cast them as the enemies of reform, Irish politicians remained convinced that proposals like a civil service test were ploys to keep immigrants off the public payrolls.

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Even a populist reformer like Republican Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, who was a mixture of Italian and Jewish, angered Irish Democrats when he professionalized New York’s civil service in 1934. From that point on, the city bureaucracy began to lose its brogue, and Jews and Italians began filling municipal jobs. Whether by design or not, reform favored emerging groups over the once dominant Irish machine. While the Irish may have perfected ethnic urban politics, successive waves of immigrant groups stood in line to claim their share of public largess.

Like many ethnic groups before them, Mexican Americans strive to leverage their numbers to become an integral member of the civic infrastructure. Despite its roots in ‘60s protest politics, the Latino political elite has begun to take on a decidedly establishmentarian style of politics. Too busy trying to become the system, Latino officialdom no longer spends much time railing against it. This shift doesn’t mean it is ignoring the interests of its largely working-class constituencies. Indeed, it may at long last be closing the gap between its political views and those of the average Latino voter.

In 1992, the Latino National Political Survey, the largest opinion poll of its kind, found that Mexican Americans trust government more than do Anglo Americans. Surprising to some, foreign-born Mexicans expressed even greater trust than their U.S.-born counterparts. Contrary to myth, immigrant alienation from the mainstream does not produce robust anti-establishment sentiments. “The angst that expresses the pain of separation,” writes Russell Jacoby, “also craves union--or its substitute, recognition and acceptance.”

In a 1997 poll by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, Latinos expressed higher regard for local government’s two most visible institutions, police and schools, than any other ethnic group. The contrast between the reaction to Zacarias’ demotion and the tepid community response to what may become the worst police scandal in L.A. history puts contemporary Latino civic priorities in full relief. In September, the news of widespread corruption at Rampart Division, which serves an overwhelmingly Latino public, was followed by a pro-police community rally; the next day’s scheduled antipolice protest never came off. Subsequently, nary a word of outrage was heard from Latino officials who represent the area. It fell to an Anglo Westsider, state Sen. Tom Hayden, to play the righteously indignant role of the last Chicano activist.

Riordan’s most lasting legacy to L.A. may be reintroducing the city’s business elite to urban affairs. Like the great immigrant cities before it, Los Angeles needs its own class of reformers to weigh in on social issues. But L.A.'s Latinos are past the point of wanting to be unilaterally aided and acknowledged by the sitting establishment. They want to be part of the establishment--and the solution--themselves.


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