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Keeping up with Fabian

Nunez puts to rest the notion of Mexican American politicians as 'everyman.'

October 15, 2007|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Don't worry, I'm not another one of those priggish good-government types who's going to scold California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez for his lavish, campaign-financed globe-trotting. Nor am I going to make fun of the fact that he characterized his lifestyle -- the $5,149 meeting at a Bordeaux wine shop or the $8,745 hotel bill in Barcelona -- as being pretty much the same as "how most middle-class people live." Believe it or not, I actually have reason to be encouraged by the speaker's antics as well as the self-assessment, however flawed, that he's typically middle class.

You see, news of his status, as well as of his high-flying tastes (which match his foie-gras-eating, Hugo-Boss-sporting buddy Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa), might finally spell the end of the tradition of left-wing, well-off Mexican American politicians and activists pretending to be in the vanguard of the working class. And that's a good thing.

About a decade ago, I had lunch with Nunez, who was then political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. He asked me to swing by his office on 9th Street and pick him up. I arrived in my ratty little 1986 Honda Accord (which, incidentally, I bought used from a deputy mayor in the Riordan administration who would later get caught up in the Fleishman Hillard overbilling scandal of 2003). It was a short ride to the restaurant he had chosen, but at first I didn't know that it was all part of an object lesson the future speaker had prepared for me.

Once in El Taurino, a Mexican joint on Hoover and 11th Street, the future speaker began to lecture me. "This is what the working people eat," he said solemnly. He made a show of schooling me in the ways of the humble. It wasn't until after lunch that I found out that he lived in leafy Claremont and drove a white BMW convertible.

To be fair, Nunez didn't invent this pretense. Indeed, there's a long history of activists and politicians pretending to be more humble than they are. In the 19th century in the United States, such well-to-do pols as Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay not only touted their humble origins (a legitimate American tradition, even if it wasn't their tradition), they also tried to pass themselves off to voters as working men. Lesser-known candidates of the Jacksonian era even donned old clothes and sought to conceal their lofty educations. Russian communists in the 20th century perfected the charade. Soviet propaganda immortalized the image of Vladimir Lenin, a product of the upper middle class, wearing a worker's cap. In Southeast Asia, Maoist leaders of the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge wore peasant clothing despite the fact they were generally educated in upper-crust French colonial schools.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chicanismo, the ideology of the Chicano movement, fused the Jacksonian American tradition with old-school Marxism. The movement combined an identification with the downtrodden and a distrust of capitalism, which engendered a certain disdain for those who aspired to move up the social ladder. Ironically, given that Chicano activists sought to improve the lot of the working poor, they considered middle-class Mexican Americans to have "sold out."

Of course, the Chicano movement only lasted a few years, but remnants of its ideology persisted, particularly on college campuses, which is probably where Nunez picked it up. It led to ambitious left-leaning Mexican Americans like himself evidently feeling obliged to hide their own material ambitions. They didn't seem to get that they were also denying the very aspirations of the working people whose interests they claimed to represent.

The fact is, they could have dropped the mask, even back then. There's no real evidence that working people, particularly immigrants, prefer their leaders to be of the same class. In fact, some great American politicians-for-the-masses -- Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and Boston Mayor James Michael Curley come to mind -- knew that their material success actually endeared them to their base, who, in the case of the latter at least, identified with the politician's humble origins as well as admired his achievement. I suspect a great part of Villaraigosa's appeal, as well as that of, say, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), is that they are local boys done good. People are proud of them precisely because they were able to transcend their working-class origins.

None of this is to say that plenty of voters won't be turned off by Nunez's spending donor's money to maintain a lavish lifestyle. But at the very least, the myth that Mexican American political elites are working-class Joes has been shattered for good.

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