October 10, 2003

With Trepidation and Hope, Ethnic California Readies for Arnold

By Brian Shott

As a Hollywood film star and ex-body builder prepares to take California’s helm, members of the state’s ethnic communities are reflecting on an extraordinary recall campaign that broached several “minority” issues but remained, they say, exclusive, elite and threatening.

“It seems that California is headed for some serious cultural and political wars,” says Nativo Vigil Lopez, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Political Association. Economic and ethnic polarization and gaping divides in access to resources such as health insurance loom. Recall politicking, Lopez says, with its emphasis on issues such as drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants and Indian gaming, is evidence that the “undercurrent of cultural and language wars is coming to the fore.”

Lopez lost his seat on the Orange County school board in February in a recall funded by Republican millionaire Ron Unz, who also backed Proposition 227 in 1998, which dismantled state bilingual education programs. Language debates also figured prominently in the recall campaign, with Schwarzenegger criticized for joining the advisory board of U.S. English, an organization that seeks to make English the official language nationwide.

Lopez predicts a movement to strike down the new drivers license law. “It will be a visceral, divisive issue on the magnitude of Proposition 187,” the 1994 initiative that denied health care and other services to undocumented immigrants and was struck down by the courts.

Michael Smith, a Sioux Indian, was troubled by Schwarzenegger’s negative campaign comments on Indian gaming. In television ads the candidate called on tribes to pay “their fair share” of casino revenues to state coffers.

“He doesn’t really understand Indian sovereignty,” says Smith, who directs the San Francisco-based American Indian Film Institute, which promotes Native American films and trains Indian youth in media arts. Smith calls the ads “almost offensive” to California Indians, whose ancestors suffered extermination policies. Only in the last five to seven years, he says, have California’s tribes been in a position to influence state politics.

California’s Iranian community, which numbers around 500,000, is still reeling from mass detentions during the government’s post-9/11 special registration program, according to Ramin Moshiri, an engineer and board member of the Persian Cultural Center in San Diego. “It’s becoming like a Third World country for us here,” Moshiri says. “You’re supposed to meet your accuser in a court of law; you’re not supposed to be detained without charges.”

Now the recall, Moshiri says, is “the last straw. At any moment there is an election and then there is a coup d’etat to displace the one elected.”

Vietnamese American Vu Duc Vuong, director of the San Francisco office of the American Friends Service Committee, worries Schwarzenegger will be “a disaster for Asians and all Californians.” Although the governor elect received support from rank and file union members, for Vu Duc, Schwarzenegger “lives a life unlike any of us working stiffs, and knows little if anything about the issues affecting us.”

To African American author Octavia Butler, winner of Hugo and Nebula awards for her science fiction stories and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, the recall is far from being a grass-roots movement. “It took a millionaire to get this thing really rolling,” Butler says.

The future worlds depicted in novels by Butler, who grew up in a poor California town, are dark extensions of current political and social realities. Butler sees in the recall seeds of democratic breakdown. “If (the recall) works once, then why not again? So you have politicians worrying more about getting re-elected than governing. And I have a feeling California does things first,” and other states will follow.

Angela Oh, a Los Angeles lawyer and former member of President Clinton’s Race Initiative Commission, connects California’s rich diversity to the frenzied recall. “With so many different communities and racial groups, it’s inevitable that we would end up in chaos. People are trying to figure out where their alliances are in a state where things are changing so rapidly.

But with the recall, a wise electoral check on runaway governors was transformed into “a mechanism for abuse for people with money.”

If Arnold “undercut the left,” says Richard Rodriguez, author of “Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” he also “outmaneuvered the Republican right. There he was, giving his acceptance speech with a Reaganesque cheerfulness, flanked by the most famous democratic family in America — the Kennedys. Right-wing radio was soundly trounced.”

According to writer-activist Jeff Chang, born of Chinese and Native Hawaiian ancestry, the experience of organizing against Prop. 187 helped grassroots groups rally youth to defeat Prop. 54, the racial privacy initiative, one of two initiatives on the recall ballot. Chang, author of the upcoming “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, A History of the Hip Hop Generation,” is encouraged by the significant youth vote in the recall, and aggravated by most gubernatorial candidates’ — Arianna Huffington excepted — blind eyes toward youth.

Rodriguez, meanwhile, says that many immigrants voted for Schwarzenegger because he represents confidence. “Beyond big money and celebrity factors, he touched some optimism about California’s future that hasn’t been voiced by white candidates for a long time.”

Jaime Regalado, director of the Pat Brown Institute on Public Affairs in Los Angeles, a civic engagement organization, also sees hopeful signs for California politics. The recall temporarily weakened the “two-party stranglehold,” as Huffington and Green Party candidate Peter Camejo pushed challenging ideas such as public financing of campaigns and instant runoff voting, he says.

Yet Regalado fears “hyper campaigning” and “constant political mobilization” by politicians ever fearful of an unruly electorate that can throw them out at any moment.

Brian Shott (brian@ pacificnews.org) is an editor at Pacific News Service. PNS editors Andrew Lam, Mary Jo McCona-hay, Marcelo Ballve, Pueng Vongs and Donal Brown contributed to this report.

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