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Teaching History, Trying to Make It

This morning, the day after the primary, Gregory Salcido will be back at El Rancho High, teaching his 8 o’clock history class.

By now he will know, and his students will, too, that he won’t be leaving in January to go to Washington, D.C., won’t be raising his hand and swearing to preserve, protect and defend, so help him God.

I am not inviting “Dewey Defeats Truman” headlines by writing this before the polls closed on Tuesday. But we’re realists here, and a realist knows that Grace Napolitano, the Democrat running for her third term in the 38th Congressional District, is not likely to be knocked out by a young Pico Rivera City Council member, however smart and thoughtful he is--and Salcido is unquestionably those things--because on the hard-to-do list, unseating a member of Congress ranks up there with un-haloing a canonized saint (any resemblance purely unintentional).

So why would Salcido even try?

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To figure it out, I started election day with him. I followed him the three blocks from home to the high school he once attended, where he now teaches. Around him, kids too young to vote slogged to class in “Salcido for Congress” T-shirts. One puffed out his chest as Salcido passed him on his way into the polling place in the school library, to cast his vote for himself.

Salcido is 33 years old, a Pico Rivera kid since before he was old enough to pronounce it. His dad used to read five papers a day, but back then Salcido tossed aside everything but the sports page. It was only when he went to Whittier College--a big deal for a kid whose dad kept saying, “You gotta go to college, don’t work with your hands like me"--that the lights came on. News. Politics. History. The world. He decided to teach. His students have gone on to Berkeley, Princeton, Notre Dame; their pictures are on his campaign Web site. “I’m in the business of turning the lights on in those kids’ heads the way that mine was.”

And if you care to look at it that way, public office is just teaching in a bigger classroom.

There are Grace Napolitano’s lawn signs, orange and flourishing like California poppies, but turn down Salcido’s street and there are his signs, demure blue and white. His only other election was in 1999, for City Council, and in a couple of weeks he’ll take his turn as mayor. Wal-Mart and Starbucks will soon open their doors in Pico believe-it-or-not Rivera, and that tickles him because he wants his town to be “as American as Scranton, Pa.--anything anyone expects there, is what should be accessible here.” But Congress, after three brief years on the City Council? The teacher of American history wants to wade into America’s concerns--living wage, health care, “issues that really stir my passion.”

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He had a sure-thing chance to climb the Sacramento ladder when some power brokers came to him about running for Assembly, but he told them that’s not for him. You get elected, and right away you begin angling for something bigger, and you wind up no different from the rest of them.

So it was Congress for Salcido, and a bargain-basement $30,000 campaign with just one mailer, and a campaign about him, not about Napolitano, because cynicism starts when campaigns are “so cutthroat.... You should talk about what you bring to the table.”

The Salcido Strategy for March 2002 was to do well in Pico Rivera and, as for everywhere else, Pomona to Santa Fe Springs, “just hang in there. I don’t need to win; I just need to hang in there.”

Salcido is a patient man. He plans. He and his wife were engaged for eight years. “I understand the concept of investment. This is an investment.”

His is only 33, and Primary 2004--it’s only a couple of high-school graduations away.

Each classroom bears the mark of its teacher. Salcido’s has newsmagazine covers taped to the 50-year-old walls. So is the Bill of Rights, which came up in class Tuesday because Imperial Showgirls came up at the City Council meeting the night before--a big set-to over the strip club that Pico Rivera doesn’t want but a judge said it must allow.

Of course Salcido’s against it--"I mean, who says, ‘Strip clubs, yeah!’ But I will back up their right to exist as long as they go through the proper permit process. And I have a right not to go, and a right to protest.”

And that’s the incredible thing about America, he tells the kids.

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“They put this stuff together--these guys in funny wigs and funny pants and buckles on their shoes. They weren’t thinking about a strip club in Pico Rivera--I don’t think they were--but 200-some years later the judge says they can do this, because of this Constitution. It’s amazing how it all works. I’m amazed. My job is to see that you guys get amazed by it.”

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Columnist Patt Morrison’s e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com


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