Ethnic Politics at Its Worst

I like ethnic politics, not least because they help keep our American experiment in democracy fresh and inclusive. Without the Irish politics of Boston's wards, this country might never have known John and Robert Kennedy. Decades later, the success of the Kennedys still inspires people of all ethnic groups to reach for the highest levels of public service.

But when ethnic politics are not practiced with the grace and style of the Kennedys, they can seem alienating--even threatening. When a particular ethnic group insists that a paisan deserves public office not because he or she is the best candidate, but just because he or she is a paisan, most of us object. Because then ethnic politics is not being inclusive, but exclusive.

A small but vociferous group of Latino activists in Los Angeles has been playing some hard ethnic politics lately in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They want a particular Latino educator selected for the district's top job now that Supt. Sid Thompson is resigning. They have some good arguments on their side, but last week they pushed beyond even my tolerance for ethnic politics.

It happened when they launched a recall drive against a school board member not because he opposed the idea that a Latino should run L.A.'s schools, but because he had the temerity to suggest that it might be wise to move slowly in making such a big decision, and that maybe a national search for other candidates was in order.

The target of the recall is David Tokofsky, a former social studies teacher who was narrowly elected last year to represent District 5, which covers the east San Fernando Valley and part of northeast Los Angeles. It is 70% Latino in population. Of course, it's hard to find any part of the LAUSD that doesn't have significant Latino presence. Currently the ethnic makeup of the district student body is 67% Latino, 14% African American, 11% white and 5% Asian American.

The unwitting focus of this exercise in ethnic politics is Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias, courtly and soft-spoken educator whose experience in the city schools goes far beyond the 30 years he has spent on the staff of LAUSD. He began his teaching career in the same Boyle Heights elementary school classroom where he studied as a child. That was at Breed Street School, where he eventually became principal. He was later a regional administrator and for the last several years has worked at the district's downtown headquarters.

In 25 years as a journalist in this town, I have had to deal with Zacarias dozens of times, through both ups and downs for the nation's second-largest and most diverse school district. He's a class act and probably as qualified as anyone else who could be found in a national search for an L.A. schools chief.

But it does Zacarias a great disservice to reduce his candidacy for the superintendent's job to an ethnic imperative. Or to demand, as a few of his most vocal supporters have done, that he be named to the top post immediately, without even the formality of a search for other candidates. It's as if his boosters fear that Zacarias couldn't stand up to the scrutiny, or match the competition, that a national search would entail.

Both assumptions are insulting to Zacarias. But even more insulting is a campaign that reduces a complex and thoughtful man to an ethnic symbol for political purposes. And that, to be brutally candid, is what really is afoot here.

The pending change in leadership at LAUSD has drawn activists with other agendas. Some are less interested in promoting Zacarias than they are in promoting themselves. Chief among them is the bunch that pushed to have the seven school board districts reapportioned a few years ago to ensure that the 2nd District would have a majority Latino population. They blithely assumed it would be that easy to get a second Latino on the school board. The 2nd District covers the city's Eastside and neighboring cities like Huntington Park and it did elect a Latina in 1993, Vickie Castro.

What these activists didn't count on is that a Jewish resident of Eagle Rock, Tokofsky, would beat a popular Latina, Lucia Rivera, by a mere 76 votes in last year's election. Now they're out for political revenge, presumably to prove that they still have clout. So, forget that Tokofsky speaks good Spanish and has gone out of his way to court Latino parents and support Latino kids. He's not a paisan. Worse, he didn't jump when Latinos shouted Abrinca!. So now he may face a recall election less than one year into his four-year term.

Do the Boston Irish have a word for such political foolishness? I know several in Spanish, but wouldn't print them in a family newspaper.

Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist.