Campaign Crawlers

Lopez Losing

A California ethnic hustler won't change his ways.

By 10.28.05

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A broken clock is right twice a day, it has long been said. So it seems to be with California political hustler Nativo Lopez.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attempt to transform state politics has run into sustained opposition. But he's picked up support from at least one unusual source. The centerpiece of the Governor's program is Proposition 77, which would turn legislative redistricting over to a bipartisan panel. Among this measure's supporters, featured in the official vote guide, is Lopez, president of the Mexican-American Political Association.

Surprisingly, Lopez is right on this issue (though he recently joined a public attack on the measure in order to target Gov. Schwarzenegger). Alas, this rare example of good judgment does not redeem him from a discreditable career gone wrong. Lopez, with the given name of Larry, is an ethnic hustler, abusing legitimate ethnic pride for political power and economic gain.

Of course, he's not the only ethnic demagogue in American politics. Indeed, Lopez had no objection to being compared to the notorious Al Sharpton: "Sharpton has done what he does, advocating for the people." And profiting mightily along the way.

Much of Lopez's claim to fame arises from his 1996 election to the school board in Santa Ana, located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He styles himself a Latino leader, heading up MAPA and Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana (HML), as well as being involved in other groups.

Unfortunately, Lopez's style of leadership is ethnic demagoguery. Columnist Michael Fumento observes that he's "a leading member of both the Crusade-of-the-Month and Victim-of-the-Month Clubs."

But Lopez no run-of-the-mill demagogue. He seems to have delusions of greatness: "The cross is getting heavy," he once complained.

Lopez built his own political organization. Observes Orange County Register columnist Steven Greenhut, Lopez was one of the figures attempting to create a separate Hispanic world, a world in which "the bosses who run the ethnic political machines get power, money, and the ability to live by their own rules."

Lopez ran for office promising to fight for Hispanics -- citizens, immigrants, and illegals. He targeted the Immigration and Naturalization Service, once demanding that the city of Anaheim refuse to allow INS agents to screen arrestees. There are good reasons to liberalize immigration rules, but it's bizarre to urge a major city to refuse to enforce the law.

Another Lopez priority was bilingual education, despite its poor record in preparing non-English speakers for success in American society. Some schools offered only Spanish-language instruction; Lopez even said that he intended to drive Anglo teachers out of local schools.

Many Hispanic parents complained, but they were told to go elsewhere if they weren't satisfied. Yet, notes columnist Michael Barone, "Transfers to schools offering English-language instruction were turned down; they were outside the zone."

Lopez doggedly opposed Proposition 227, the English for Children initiative, which made English-language instruction the default position, subject to a parental request for Spanish-language courses. Even after its overwhelming passage in 1998 he pushed families to opt out. Most Hispanics chose English anyway.

While posing as a defender of the oppressed, some odd events occurred. He pushed for political contributions from architects with construction business before the school board. He offered to help parents meet their children's special needs if they joined his organizations and participated in demonstrations.

More than $600,000, federal grants and federal, state, and local tax payments, was misspent or unaccounted for by another of his non-profit political vehicles, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (HMN). Lopez responded to a reporter asking about the missing funds by asking where she got the publicly-available audit.

Four years later the State Department of Education filed suit against the same group over the lack of documentation in the spending $7 million in federal grants intended for citizenship and English classes. Very little was ever recovered.

Another non-profit founded by him, Citizens in Action (CIA), received more than $105,000 from a contracting firm that received a no-bid school construction contract, which it bungled. CIA paid a $639,000 fine for improperly hiding HMN assets from the federal government.

Earlier this year the Orange County Register reported that CIA lost $523,000 between 1998 and 2003 while renting out space to Lopez's groups -- HMN and his school board election committee. When CIA demanded back rent, Lopez's allies, including his wife, seized control of the organization's board.

HMN also registered 364 non-citizens to vote in the 1996 congressional race in which Democrat Loretta Sanchez defeated incumbent Republican Bob Dornan. The investigation fizzled out when it became evident that Sanchez's narrow margin exceeded the HMN-induced invalid votes.

In 2003 Lopez was recalled by 70 percent of local voters, in a campaign led by working class Latinos. He lost every precinct, even those dominated by Hispanics in a city where three-quarters of the residents speak Spanish. The number of children in Spanish-language classes has since fallen dramatically, as Hispanic children prosper while being taught in English.

Naturally, he blamed everyone but himself for his defeat. However, the people he claimed to be representing were more interested in educating their children than scoring ethnic points. The election, noted Greenhut, was "about future opportunities for immigrant children," which Lopez's policies were not providing.

The collapse of his political ambitions did not change him. He compared the recent proposal for specially marked driver's licenses for illegal aliens to treating Hispanics like Jews in Nazi Germany. He previously deployed similarly inflammatory rhetoric against use of the term illegal alien.

He opposes measures to allow workers to control how their unions spend their dues, especially on partisan politics. Stranger was his recent opposition to a bill, introduced by Mexican-American State Sen. Nell Soto, to make cock-fighting a felony.

Lopez argued that the "sport" was culturally ingrained in Latinos, reinforcing the worst ethnic stereotypes. Sen. Soto complained that his stand "is an insult to the law-abiding Mexican-Americans and Latinos who are repulsed by such barbaric -- and illegal -- activities."

His organizations still seem to have trouble following the law. Both the IRS and California attorney general are after HML for failing to file proper forms and pay necessary fees.

Moreover, county, state, and federal governments have filed numerous tax liens against his groups; several are still pending, the most recent of which was filed in January. It isn't just conservatives who question the activities of Nativo & Co.; Public Interest Watch has urged the state Attorney General to investigate HMN for allegedly abusing its tax-exempt status.

His latest incarnation appears to be critic of lending practices directed at Latinos, charging discrimination. Yet he's promoting ethnic-based lending through HML, which has formed a "strategic alliance" with American National Mortgage.

There's actually nothing wrong with attempting to increase home ownership among Hispanics. Except when you seem to be violating the very same Fair Housing Law -- which bars mortgage lending as well as property rentals and sales based on "race, color, national origin," and other factors -- which you use to attack other lenders, which are now effectively your competitors.

Given this history, Lopez's support for the redistricting initiative comes as a shock. Has he turned over a new leaf, supporting good government for its own sake?

Unlikely. He recently joined a rally attacking all four of the Schwarzenegger initiatives because of the governor's veto of a bill providing driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Lopez may share with Gov. Schwarzenegger an interest in up-ending the political establishment. But Lopez has yet to exchange his ethnic hustle for honest politics.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).