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Candidate in Irvine has a long way to run

Retired professor is seeking a city council seat in Palermo, though he's never been there.

March 09, 2007|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

A retired UC Irvine math professor who has never been to Sicily is running for a city council seat in Palermo -- the island's capital and the homeland of his ancestors.

Frank Cannonito, who says of his age only that he's in his early 80s, is running in the May elections on the ticket of L'Altra Sicilia, a political organization that calls for the preservation of traditional Sicilian culture and language.

"There's been a continual denigration of Sicilian culture by the dominant culture. They have no respect for Sicilians," he said. "It's a form of cultural genocide."

Though Cannonito's electoral race is unusual, it is not unheard of for U.S. residents to run for office in countries where they or their ancestors once lived.

In 2001, a Yolo County tomato farmer named Andres Bermudez was elected mayor of the Mexican city of Jerez, Zacatecas, but the election was voided because he did not meet residency requirements.

Retired UCI professor Rein Taagepera took third in a 1992 race to become president of Estonia. And that same year, Newport Beach tycoon Milan Panic ran for president of Serbia and finished second behind Slobodan Milosevic.

But Cannonito's campaign is unique in that he is U.S.-born and has never visited his ancestral home.

Cannonito, of Irvine, is not campaigning and is uncertain how many candidates are running, and says it's unlikely he would even serve if elected. Yet he believes his decision to run is meaningful.

"That's weird," said Robert Guttman, director of the Center on Politics and Foreign Relations at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "I can't imagine an American being elected anywhere in the world, especially today."

Cannonito says his ancestors were wealthy landowners whose large property was dotted with wells that provided Palermo's water, as well as sweet-lemon trees. His father immigrated to the United States in 1910 and settled in New York City with a bride who was a Mayflower descendant.

Cannonito grew up in Italian American neighborhoods and learned Sicilian so he could speak with his paternal grandmother.

But the household focus was on blending into U.S. culture, so he didn't learn much about his Sicilian heritage.

But he grew increasingly curious about his family's origins after he retired from a 26-year career at UC Irvine. Through local cultural groups and the Internet, he explored the world of his forefathers and learned of the tension between the island and mainland Italy that dates to 1860.

"Sicily is regarded in mainland Italy as being extremely backward and impoverished," he said, echoing his homeland's complaint that Italian mainlanders have tried to replace the Sicilian language with Italian and plundered the island's treasuries, creating an economic situation that forced millions to emigrate.

In February, he wrote a letter to L'Altra Sicilia, a Belgium-based organization, explaining that he shared its views. It posted it on its website, where it quickly became the most-viewed article, Cannonito said.

"I believe it is important for we Sicilians -- and I say 'we Sicilians' because I have Italian citizenship and am registered in Palermo -- wherever we find ourselves in the world, to know and learn about the history of Sicily in order to defend ourselves against the negative stereotyping with which we are often characterized," Cannonito wrote.

The letter went on to note the pride Sicilians hold for their history and culture.

He called upon Sicilians, wherever they might live, to unite.

L'Altra Sicilia, which is fielding a slate of candidates for the council election including nonresidents, asked him to join its campaign, and Cannonito agreed after checking with the U.S. State Department to make sure that such a move would not jeopardize his U.S. citizenship. He has dual citizenship because of his father's heritage, and there is no residency requirement to run, he said.

But Cannonito has left the politicking to others. He has not been involved in the campaigning and does not know how many other candidates are running or how many seats are contested.

"I don't think they have a prayer of electing anybody," he said of his ticket.

"Oh, God, if I were elected, I would be tempted to resign in favor of the political organization that put me on the slate and let them replace me. Being in my low 80s, I'm not all that anxious to schlep back and forth."

However, Cannonito and his wife, Janet, are planning a visit next year.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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