CALIFORNIA'S POLITICAL WINDS blow south these days. That's the direction of approval ratings (34 percent for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 27 percent for the state legislature, per the latest survey by the San Francisco-based Public Policy Research Institute). It's also where state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez headed last week--south of the border, for a quick meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

What would prompt the speaker, who normally stays within the cozy confines of Sacramento, to try his hand at shuttle diplomacy? Nunez, who lived in Mexico for eight years as a child, said he felt the need to apologize to his second homeland for the Governator's praise of the Minutemen Project and the offhand remark that the U.S.-Mexican border should be "closed." But it's hard to ignore the timing of his trip: California's special election is two months away and Democrats are banking on a strong Hispanic turnout to kill Schwarzenegger's reform agenda.

So how did Nunez fare? His apology was a quick one; Fox granted him all of 20 minutes' face time. The Mexican media assailed Nunez for saying that Schwarzenegger meant no harm. Back home, California reporters ripped the visit as yet another stunt designed to embarrass the governor (before flying to Mexico, Nunez called on Schwarzenegger to declare a border state of emergency, as have Arizona and New Mexico's Democratic governors; Arnold has so far refused to do so).

Here's a suggestion for the speaker: In order to bridge California's illegal-immigration divide, he should start on the northern side of the border, with the more militant elements of California's Hispanic community, who shamelessly interject race into the public discourse--and whom Democratic leaders dare not offend.

And that means standing up to the likes of Nativo Lopez.

LOPEZ IS PRESIDENT of the Mexican American Political Association and a leading force behind Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (Mexican National Brotherhood), a tax-exempt non-profit formed to aid undocumented workers which nevertheless dabbles in partisan affairs--so much so that it's been the subject of an election-fraud investigation.

Until last year, "Nativo" (his real first name is Larry) was a Democrat. Then he switched to the Green party to join the Nader-Camejo presidential juggernaut. Lopez's own brush with elected office was even more calamitous. Elected a decade ago to a seat on the Santa Ana school board of trustees, Lopez was recalled by residents of Orange County (just months before Gray Davis met the same fate) for his refusal to comply with California's Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education in public schools. The recall vote wasn't close: Lopez lost by a 40-point margin. He said he wanted to make Spanish California's primary language; he was rejected in every precinct of the most Spanish-speaking city in America.

Normally, that would be the end of the story--gadfly gets swatted. However, Lopez continues to write new chapters in the art of race-baiting. For two years, Democrats have tried to convince Schwarzenegger to approve drivers' licenses for illegal aliens (Gray Davis signed such a law weeks before he was recalled; the legislature repealed it). In California, the topic divides Republicans and Democrats as it mixes messy concerns over national security with legal and social standing.

Lopez's approach to the sensitive topic is to liken it to the Holocaust. When asked by La Opinion newspaper about an alternative that would place a special mark on California drivers' licenses to distinguish between legal residents and illegal aliens, Lopez declared that the latter "do not want to be the Jews of Nazi Germany in California" and "will not be the new black slaves of the sureños states of the United States in this state." He added, "We will not be the Palestinians either that in their own earth undergoes an oppression. We are pioneering in California, a creative town of values, peace and fighters."

LOPEZ'S ANIMUS isn't limited to Republican lawmakers. He's just as willing to go to war with corporations. Earlier this month, Lopez began a PR campaign against Ameriquest, claiming that the California-based mortgage concern "targeted poor people and minorities." What Lopez didn't mention is that, for the past two years, he and a new tax-exempt spin-off, Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, have teamed up with American National Mortgage to offer mortgage services to Hermandad's pre-citizenship members. (If the goal is to make Hermandad a fully-licensed mortgage broker, then Lopez should check the law: according to federal Fair Housing Act, it's illegal to "advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or handicap.")

Then again, it wouldn't be the first time the Lopez has run afoul of the law for his political activities. In November 1996, Lopez was busy getting out the Latino vote to elect Loretta Sanchez to Congress--in the process ousting the conservative Republican incumbent, Bob Doran. Dornan lost by less than 1,000 votes; Lopez and Hermandad registered 364 ineligible voters--non-citizen students in a citizenship class. A congressional inquiry issued subpoenas, but fraud charges were never filed (in part, because the 364 votes weren't enough to change the outcome).

More recently, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer issued a "Warning of Impending Tax Assessment" to Hermandad for non-compliance and threatened to revoke its tax-exempt status if it didn't make good on delinquent fees. (Hermandad allegedly has failed to file its IRS tax form or submit a state renewal fee since 1993.) Lockyer, who's running for state treasurer next year, issued his warning in early April and threatened action within 30 days, but has let the matter drift for nearly five months.

The list of controversies goes on. During his 2000 reelection bid, Lopez was accused of raising nearly $150,000 from architects with business before the school board. Two years later, an Orange County Register exposé alleged that Lopez received $100,000 in contributions to his nonprofit group, Citizens in Action, from Del Terra Real Estate Services--before that company received a no-bid contract to build schools in Santa Ana. That same year, the Register also reported that "a Santa Ana nonprofit has agreed to pay more than $600,000 to the U.S. Government to settle a case in which prosecutors alleged that Hermandad Mexicana Nacional leader Nativo Lopez wrongly diverted grant money meant for English classes for immigrants."

Where does this leave Lopez? With the special election shifting into high gear after Labor Day and a new version of the drivers' license bill making its way to Schwarzenegger, watch for him to issue charges of "racism" soon. Over the past two decades, he's used "racism" or "racist" to describe INS drug raids, rental standards, and the state positions of local candidates and ballot measures. Small wonder the Wall Street Journal once labeled him "the Al Sharpton of Southern California for his ethnic demagogy."

It's an analogy worth remembering. Just as, on the national level, Democrats never have mustered the courage to take on race-baiters such as Sharpton for fear of alienating core voters, California Democrats are similarly spineless.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.

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