A California Race Hustler and His Washed-Up Ethnic Politics

A broken clock is right twice a day. So, it seems, is California political activist Nativo Lopez.

A centerpiece of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform 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.

That’s surprising. Because Lopez, with the given name of Larry, is an ethnic hustler, abusing ethnic pride for political power and economic gain.

Of course, he’s not America’s only ethnic demagogue. Indeed, Lopez doesn’t mind being compared to the notorious Al Sharpton: "Sharpton has done what he does, advocating for the people."

Lopez’s notoriety largely arises from his 1996 election to the school board in Santa Ana, located in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. He heads up Mexican-American Political Association and Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana.

Columnist Michael Fumento observes that Lopez is "a leading member of both the Crusade-of-the-Month and Victim-of-the-Month Clubs." But Lopez also harbors delusions of greatness: "The cross is getting heavy," he once complained.

Lopez ran for school board promising to fight for Hispanics. A priority was bilingual education, despite its poor record in preparing non-English speakers for success in U.S. society. Many Hispanic parents complained but they were told to go elsewhere. 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, which made English-language instruction standard. Even after its overwhelming passage in 1998 he pressed families to opt out.

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.

More than $600,000 was misspent or unaccounted for by another of his nonprofit political vehicles, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. Four years later the state Department of Education filed suit against the group over the lack of documentation involving $7 million in federal grants intended for citizenship and English classes.

Yet another Lopez-founded nonprofit, Citizens in Action, received more than $105,000 from a contracting firm that won a no-bid school construction contract. Citzens in Action paid a $639,000 fine for improperly hiding Hermandad Mexicana Nacional assets from the federal government.

The Orange County Register found that Citizens In Action lost $523,000 while renting out space to Lopez’s groups – Hermandad Mexicana Nacional and his school board election committee. When Citizens In Action demanded back rent, Lopez’s allies, including his wife, seized control of the organization’s board.

In 2003 Lopez was recalled by 70 percent of local voters, losing every precinct in a city where three-quarters of the residents speak Spanish. Naturally, he blamed everyone but himself.

But the election, noted Orange County Register columnist Steven Greenhut, was "about future opportunities for immigrant children," which Lopez’s policies were not providing.

The collapse of his political ambitions did not chasten him. He charged that the recent proposal for specially marked drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants would treat Hispanics like Jews in Nazi Germany.

He opposes measures to allow workers to control how their unions spend their dues, especially on partisan politics. Stranger still is his opposition to a bill, introduced by Mexican-American state Sen. Nell Soto, D-Ontario, to make cockfighting a felony. Soto complained that Lopez’s stand "is an insult to the law-abiding Mexican-Americans and Latinos who are repulsed by such barbaric – and illegal – activities."

Lopez’s organizations still seem to have trouble following the law. Both the Internal Revenue Service and California attorney general are after Hermandad Mexicana Nacional for failing to file proper forms and pay necessary fees. Moreover, county, state, and federal governments have filed numerous tax liens against his groups.

In his latest incarnation, Lopez criticizes lending practices directed at Latinos. Yet he’s promoting ethnic-based lending through Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, which has formed a "strategic alliance" with American National Mortgage.

There’s nothing wrong with attempting to increase Hispanic home ownership. Except when you seem to be violating the Fair Housing Law that you are using to attack other lenders who are now effectively your competitors.

Why, given this history, is Lopez supporting the redistricting initiative? Is he pushing 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 drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. Lopez might share with Schwarzenegger an interest in upending the political establishment. But Lopez has yet to exchange ethnic hustle for honest politics.