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Ventura County

Flynn, Latinos Head Into Political Divide

Government: An ethnic shift is rippling through the veteran supervisor's Oxnard-based district and elsewhere in the county.

June 30, 2002|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The feud that erupted between veteran Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn and a coalition of Latino leaders in Oxnard last week is more than just a spat between an intemperate politician and his critics.

Charges that Flynn threatened Irma Lopez, the wife of Oxnard's mayor, are an outgrowth of both his notoriously quick temper and the changing ethnic face of Oxnard politics.

Latinos, steadily marching toward majority status in Ventura County, are pushing for more political clout. This is especially true in Oxnard, the county's biggest city, where Latinos make up 62% of its 170,000 inhabitants.

Oxnard's transition from a white-dominated city to one run by Latinos mirrors a broader transition of California from a white-dominated state to one that no longer has a racial or ethnic majority. Cities up and down the state, particularly those in the farm labor areas of the San Joaquin Valley, are increasingly being run by Latinos.

In a narrower sense, as with Flynn, it's also a story of politicians who have run communities for decades being displaced by a new generation of elected leaders of a different ethnicity. That tinges the usual political animosities with a racial flavor.

Flynn threw down the gauntlet last week by announcing he would likely run for an eighth term in 2004. That puts him in conflict with Oxnard community leaders, who thought they had his promise to step down after his current term expires.

"The politics have to do with who is going to replace John Flynn," said Hank Lacayo, former chairman of the county's Democratic Party. "Whether he runs or not is his choice, but there are some folks who are anxious about having that happen."

Latinos now make up an estimated 20% of those holding elective office on the county's school boards and city councils. That is a doubling of representation over the past decade.

The change has not always come easily.

Bitter divisions between white members of the Santa Paula City Council and the city's Latino leaders led to the filing of a federal voting rights lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice. The lawsuit alleged that the city's at-large voting system had perpetuated racial discrimination by preventing Latino candidates from being elected to the City Council.

The ordeal cost Santa Paula $500,000 in legal fees and was settled last year when the city agreed to allow voters to decide this November whether to maintain at-large elections or switch to a district system.

In Fillmore, where the potential for enmity was equal to that of Santa Paula, the transition has been somewhat smoother. Two Latino council members have been elected without race-baiting.

Oxnard's City Council also has Latino members, John Zaragoza and Mayor Manuel Lopez. The other members are Bedford Pinkard, who is black, and Tom Holden and Dean Maulhardt, white sons of pioneer families.

Change has come more quickly to education boards. In 1990, there were two Latinos on the Rio Elementary School District board. Today the five-member board is made up entirely of Latinos in a district where 80% of students are Latino.

In 1995, the Rio board hired Yolanda Benitez as superintendent, the first Latina to hold such a position in Ventura County. Today, four school district chiefs are Latino, including Oxnard Elementary's Richard Duarte.

Art Hernandez, who was elected to the Rio board in 1991, said community leaders realized that if they shared information and got help from mentors, they could take on leadership roles.

"It was an exciting time," said Hernandez, who is now a trustee of the Ventura County Community College District. "We were finally coming together and bringing together different resources. It wasn't that we wanted to hire Latinos or install them in office. It was not just a Latino vision; it was a community vision. Part of the responsibility for the Latino community is to take on the leadership roles."

Irma Lopez, an influential Democratic fund-raiser, said she looks at the individual's character and position on the issues when deciding whom to back.

"We all bring our life experiences to the table," Lopez said. "But we have had wonderful people who don't look at race, who don't see color. And whoever wins [the upcoming supervisors' race] will win on the issue of what is good for the community."

Lopez said that Flynn shouted, "I'm gonna get you!" as he was leaving a recent Democratic barbecue. Flynn denied making those comments. He said Lopez and other Latino leaders are trying to discredit him so they can fill his seat with a Latino.

Many people believe Flynn has done a stand-up job for the Latino community in his 26 years of service. He has long been a champion of civil rights issues, has pushed for farm-worker housing and is known for promptly responding to complaints by constituents.

The fair-skinned 69-year-old of Irish ancestry learned Spanish so he could better converse with the residents of his district, Lacayo said.

"Just because you happen to have a Hispanic last name doesn't mean you are the best person running," he said. "I'm a Latino. If we ask for diversity, we ought to practice it."

Flynn acknowledges the changing politics and the likelihood that the 5th District will one day be governed by a Latino supervisor. But he wants to be the one who decides when he should leave.

"If I go by the vast majority of people [in my district], my strength is very deep," he said. "It's up to the people if I run and not the politicians. And a lot of people have been telling me I should."

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