May 21, 1999

Medina Takes Wheel at CalTrans

By Bob Egelko

SAN FRANCISCO - Jose Medina isn't a lawyer, but he spent 14 years running a small law office that represented low-income Hispanic workers in disputes over wages and workplace rights.

Medina isn't a transportation expert either, but he's been put in charge of California's transportation department, with responsibility for 20,000 employees, an $8 billion budget, the upkeep of 15,000 miles of highways and the frustrations of 20.7 million motorists.

The former San Francisco city supervisor, 58, has quickly become one of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' most controversial appointees despite the 32-0 state Senate vote that confirmed him.

Medina's critics note the new director has no experience in engineering, transportation planning or any other field connected to the department's day-to-day work, has never managed an organization larger than two small nonprofits, and was surprised by the appointment.

Those chiming in include past CalTrans directors.

``One of the key qualifications should be a proven ability to run a large organization,'' said Robert Best, who was the department's chief lawyer when Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him director in 1988. ``It is not something you learn well on the job.''

Medina seems to have dispelled at least one of his critics' predictions: that he would be beholden to Mayor Willie Brown, who promoted his appointment to the $105,000-a-year job.

With the state planning to rebuild the east half of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge because of earthquake safety concerns, Brown called for a realignment that would fit his development plans for Treasure Island.

But soon after Medina's appointment, Davis reaffirmed the state's plan for a different route he said was cheaper and quicker to build.

Republicans who may have seen him as vulnerable probed for weaknesses at a March confirmation hearing. Before it ended, Sen. John Lewis, R-Orange, said he'd wave a white flag if he had one.

Medina deflected questions about his experience, noting he had plenty of engineers to consult, and fended off such sensitive topics as freeway diamond lanes by promising to listen to local concerns. He brought support from 43 favorable witnesses, including Hispanic groups, unions, contractors and local government and chamber of commerce officials.

Medina, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told lawmakers he has ``a knowledge of transportation which is not reflected on my resume.'' He cited his work with local-government associations that lobby on the issue.

Medina may owe his appointment to his early endorsement of Davis for governor last year, while other prominent Hispanic Democrats backed Davis rival Al Checchi.

But he has shown he can stand up to authority, said Frank Martin del Campo, a San Francisco union organizer and national board member of the AFL-CIO's Labor Council for Latin-American Advancement who's known Medina for more than a decade.

Medina was a member of the city Police Commission in 1988, when United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta was beaten by an officer during a rally, del Campo noted. Medina, an appointee of Mayor Art Agnos, resisted pressure to back implicated officers and supported discipline, del Campo said.

``He was close to the people who appointed him but stood firm,'' del Campo said.

Longtime friend Frank Fernandez, a former deputy city attorney, said Medina was a tough questioner on the Police Commission and, during an earlier appointment to the city Board of Permit Appeals, was often the lone voice against downtown business interests.

``He wasn't a screaming radical'' but considered the impact large commercial projects would have on low-income communities, Fernandez said.

Medina, a Texas native who is married and has two children, emerged as a neighborhood activist in San Francisco's heavily Hispanic Mission District in the early 1970s, founding the nonprofit La Raza Information Center.

Former center worker Fernandez described it as a grassroots operation that scrounged for books and furniture, offered a still-functioning legal aid program, published a Spanish-language newspaper, tutored children and fought rezoning harmful to housing.

In successfully lobbying city supervisors on zoning, Medina built coalitions with non-Hispanic neighborhood groups, an approach central to his low-budget campaigns for supervisor, Fernandez said.

Medina, who entered college in his late 20s, got a degree in urban studies from San Francisco State, studied two years at Harvard Business School and has a law degree from Golden Gate University. He never passed the bar exam.

His community work includes founding the Instituto Laboral De La Raza in 1982, supervising lawyers who represented low-income Hispanics in disputes over wages, organizing and workplace rights.

In 1996, after serving on city commissions, building alliances with labor and community groups, working for Brown's election and running for city supervisor three times, Medina won his first and only elective office.

As a supervisor, he focused on Mission District issues, including a conflict with CalTrans over its failure to change freeway signs after Army Street was renamed for farm labor leader Cesar Chavez.

He had little involvement in transportation otherwise, instead focusing on housing, labor and affirmative action.

Medina said soon after his CalTrans appointment that he offers ``a unique perspective,'' supporting alternative means of transportation but not ``anti-car.''

The California Transit Association's Joshua Shaw said it is about time a CalTrans director ``doesn't view the department as simply a highway-building function.''

On the other side, Assemblyman Tom McClintock, a Northridge Republican and Assembly Transportation Committee vice chairman, promises ``global thermal war'' if Medina tries to ``continue to starve the state highway system.''

Unions are even hungrier for a friend there after 16 years of struggle with Republican administrations, including a successful court fight with Davis' predecessor, Gov. Pete Wilson, over giving CalTrans jobs to the private sector.

``I think we will be able to help him do a good job,'' said Perry Kenny, president of the California State Employees Association.

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