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2 Incumbents in Close Race for Last Seat in Santa Ana

Yamagata-Noji and Lopez won't know for several days who'll stay on school board. Lopez alleges many Latinos were turned away at polls.


Santa Ana Unified school board incumbents Audrey Yamagata-Noji and Nativo V. Lopez were neck and neck Wednesday in the race for one seat, and the results to determine who must vacate the dais in December won't come for at least several days, county officials said.

Meanwhile, Lopez on Wednesday said he intends to file a complaint against the county registrar of voters, alleging that "many Latino voters were denied the right to cast votes."

Lopez--who is a local director of the Latino rights group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional and is relying heavily on absentee and provisional votes--will hold a press conference at 11:30 a.m. today at Teen Challenge, 418 S. Main St., Santa Ana, where some of the incidents allegedly occurred.

"We have reports that in Precinct 98 . . . an area heavily populated by Latinos, there were no ballots available, that many Latino voters were turned away . . . and that many weren't told they had the alternative of going to the registrar of voters on South Grand to cast their vote," Lopez said in a written statement.

Registrar Rosalyn Lever on Wednesday said the office received only one complaint on election day, and that was from a Santa Ana voter who wanted a polling place to remain open until 10 p.m., a decision Lever said she doesn't have the authority to make.

Yamagata-Noji, a 13-year veteran on the board, on Wednesday had a razor-thin lead with 14.1% (8,892) of the votes and Lopez with 13.9% (8,761). With 80,000 absentee ballots and 20,000 provisional ballots still left to be counted countywide, the race could swing either way.

The registrar's office says it will have all absentee ballots counted by Tuesday, but a final tally of the provisional ballots may not be available until Dec. 5. Provisional ballots are given to people who are registered to vote but unable to cast their ballots at the local polling place. Those ballots are counted after officials confirm the registration.

The other two seats appeared Wednesday to go to newcomer Sal Tinajero, a 29-year-old history teacher at Lathrop Intermediate School in Santa Ana, and incumbent Rosemarie "Rosie" Avila. The registrar's figures Wednesday had Tinajero as the top vote-getter with 16.6% (10,472) and Avila a close second with 16.2% (10,179).

For Lopez and Yamagata-Noji, the race is a case of deja vu: The pair found themselves in a close race in the 1996 election.

"The same thing happened four years ago," Yamagata-Noji said. "The election wasn't certified for three weeks, so it's really nothing new."

That time, both candidates made it onto the board. But only one of them will make it this time.

"I'm not overly optimistic at all," Yamagata-Noji said. "I'm very realistic. . . . I know there can be surprise endings."

If she loses her seat, Yamagata-Noji--who is vice president of student affairs at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut--said she will not run again in 2002.

"I've actually been a finalist for college presidency, so I gave up advancing in my professional career for the school board and was willing to do it again and put aside my aspirations of becoming college president," she said. "But now I may be able to focus on that again."

In other school board races, candidates backed by the conservative Education Alliance didn't fare as well in Tuesday's election as the group's candidates did in 1996. Only three of the 10 candidates endorsed by the Christian group were elected. All three, including Santa Ana's Avila, were incumbents.

Four years ago, the Education Alliance spent $66,000 backing 36 candidates in an effort to institute a more back-to-basics, anti-union agenda on Orange County school boards. Thirteen of those 1996 candidates won, giving Education Alliance-backed candidates a sixth of the county's school board seats and majorities in Orange, Garden Grove and Westminster.

The alliance gave only $5,000 to school board candidates this year, said Ken Williams, a county Board of Education member who helps run the organization.

The results of the election "show you the power of incumbency and the power of union money," Williams said.

Avila said the candidates' lack of funding might have played a large part in their defeats.


Correspondent Alex Katz contributed to this story.

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