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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Mourning a Role Model Whose Lessons Live On

November 11, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's an American story. A Mexican American story--about work, service, commitment. And teaching.

Joe Serna Jr. picked crops as a boy, the son of immigrant farm laborers. As a young man, he ran food caravans for striking members of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers union. And Wednesday, 200 or so farm workers carrying UFW flags marched behind his pine casket to the cathedral for a funeral Mass.

Of course, they don't block off downtown streets just for a farm worker. The governor and lieutenant governor don't come out and the mayor doesn't drive over from San Francisco. The network affiliates don't preempt the soaps and televise the march and Mass live for four hours. The cathedral doesn't get packed with 1,400 people and 1,000 don't stand outside in a drizzle, listening to a loudspeaker on a work morning.

This captivating event, which he planned, was a metaphor for Serna's diverse life.

Joe Serna, who died Sunday of kidney cancer at 60, was a farm worker who became a college poli-sci professor and Sacramento's mayor--the first Latino mayor of a major California city. He never got much statewide attention, certainly not what he deserved for the lessons he taught us.

He taught--as L.A.'s Tom Bradley did a generation ago--how to succeed politically and govern effectively in a racially diverse society. Sacramento is a composite of the emerging California: 42% white, 25% Latino, 15% black, 15% Asian.

Serna showed that you can make it politically without pandering to ethnic constituencies, without playing to your "community." His only community really was the 400,000 citizens of Sacramento, as Pollyannaish as that may seem to cynics.

"He never, ever had a conversation with me about 'Latino politics,' " says political consultant Richie Ross, who was a UFW organizer when he first met Serna and Wednesday was a pallbearer. "We never had a private conversation about Latino 'empowerment.' He only thought about working people.

"He was very proud of his own roots and who he was, but when he entered the world of politics, he was 'working class.' "

And that was Sacramento's sense of him--that and a sense of his exercising fairness, rather than favoritism.

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Ross and his friend learned a little lesson of their own when then-Councilman Serna first ran for mayor and lost in 1983. They learned, Ross says, that with minority candidates, "you've got to make them safe before you make them smart. I made him too hot. We tried to sell 'new leadership.' That frightened voters."

Serna ran again in 1992 and won easily. His 1996 reelection was a blowout.

Like Bradley, Serna will be remembered for reshaping the city's skyline and reviving downtown. That job's unfinished.

But mostly, Serna's legacy will be that of an education reformer--as a mayor who stepped out of his own limited box and literally saved the public schools. And in doing that, he taught a lesson to L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan.

"Joe was sort of the model of how Dick Riordan approached the L.A. school board," says political consultant Bill Carrick, a Riordan advisor.

"Riordan and Joe had a lot of communication. What Joe did in Sacramento is considered a model for mayors around the country."

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This is what Serna did: From his bully pulpit, supported by community trust, he blew up the school board and the school administration, which were fractured, rife with ethnic favoritism and dysfunctional.

"I told him he shouldn't do it," recalls Phil Isenberg, a former mayor, state assemblyman and also a pallbearer. "I said, 'The city doesn't run schools.' Joe got mad. He said 'The schools are going to hell. The board doesn't know anything.' "

First, Serna went to the board. It told him to mind his own business. Next, the mayor appointed a blue-ribbon commission, co-chaired by future state Treasurer Phil Angelides. That panel recommended several school reforms. "The board responded with a one-fingered salute," Angelides says.

Then Serna went political. The mayor's citizen commission endorsed four school board candidates and backed them financially. Two Latinos and two blacks lost their seats--replaced by one Latino, one black and two whites.

How did Serna react to dumping the Latinos? "Cold. Had to be done. The kids were suffering," says Ross.

That was 1996. Afterward, Sacramento got out ahead of California on school reform--on reading, on accountability, on test scores.

Serna refused to be the "good Mexican" for any ethnic group. He tried to be the "good mayor" for everyone. He was a proud Mexican American and an excellent mayor. And an outstanding teacher of politics and government.

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