Gabino Aguirre’s Secret Political Past
JULY 15, 2011
By JOHN HRABE
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, the 14-member independent panel of average citizens, was created to end partisan gerrymandering and draw political boundaries in an open process, without the influence of special interests.
An investigation by CalWatchDog.com reveals that at least one commissioner, Dr. Gabino T. Aguirre, has made multiple political campaign contributions to Democratic candidates — contributions that were previously undisclosed to the Commission; a long history of political activism in support of Latino causes; and an extensive web of connections to a special interest group that has submitted its own redistricting proposals to the commission.
A spokesman for the commission said Aguirre would be unavailable for comment before this article was scheduled to publish.
This new evidence about Aguirre raises serious questions about the fairness and objectivity of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, which has been charged with restoring fairness and integrity to the redistricting process. With the commission’s announcement this week that it will not release the second draft of its redistricting maps, the public deserves insight into what groups, causes and issues all commissioners are sympathetic to.
Moreover, the commissioner should be held to his own standard of openness. A former mayor and councilman from the City of Santa Paula, Aguirre has repeatedly vowed to uphold the commission’s charter to an open and public process.
“We have an open and transparent process where everything we say and everything we do is in front of the public,” Aguirre told the annual conference of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), according to the Ventura County Star on May 21, 2011.
However, documents obtained by CalWatchDog.com, raise questions about whether Aguirre was less than forthcoming about the full nature of his past partisan activities. Aguirre’s application to serve on the commission fails to list any political contributions to Democratic candidates or involvement with Democratic campaigns. His only reference to partisan activities is a list of past membership in the Peace and Freedom Party, the La Raza Unida Party, the Green Party and the Democratic Party.
Contributions to Democratic Campaigns
The commission’s legally mandated background report, prepared in compliance with Title 2, Section 60835 of the California Code of Regulations, begins to tell the different story about Aguirre’s significant political activism.
In the September 19, 2010, “Report on Information Collected Concerning Applicant,” Steven Benito Russo, chief of investigations for the California Bureau of State Audits, acknowledged that Aguirre’s letters of recommendation came primarily from Democratic Party leaders, including Kathy Long, a Democratic supervisor for Ventura County, and Susan Broidy, a director of the California Democratic Party.
“Staff also discovered that Applicant had hosted fundraiser at his home in October 2008 for Ferial Masry, a Democratic candidate for Assembly, and in June 2010 endorsed Marie Panec, a Democratic candidate for Congress,” the investigator wrote. When pressed by staff about his partisan political activities, the report explained that Aguirre told them, “It’s not about the party — it’s about the person’s position.”
An independent review of state campaign finance documents revealed what state auditors missed: three campaign donations to Democratic candidates for state office. In November 2008, Aguirre contributed $100 to Ferial Masry, the Democratic nominee for the 37th State Assembly District. A year later, he doubled his political giving with a $200 contribution to Gloria Romero, a former Democratic State Senator and candidate for state superintendent of public instruction.
It’s understandable why the state’s nonpartisan investigators missed Aguirre’s final political contribution: it posted on the California Secretary of State’s website nine days after the California Bureau of State Audits completed its background report. That final contribution was a $100 to Das Williams, now the Democratic Assemblyman for the 35th district.
Williams, whose political career is directly impacted by the maps Aguirre must approve, previously interacted with his contributor dating back at least two years earlier, when Aguirre served as Santa Paula’s representative on the Ventura Council of Governments.
Geographic Rivals: Williams vs. Nava
This new evidence of Aguirre’s financial relationship with Williams provided new credibility to past allegations that the commission’s first redistricting draft proposal was too favorable to Williams, an accusation made by some Democratic leaders. In April 2011, former State Assemblyman Pedro Nava, a longtime political rival of Williams, complained that the district lines that included Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties did not adequately represent local communities of interest.
Wasting no time, Williams impugned Nava’s “political motives.” The Daily Sound reported that Williams “said he has intentionally not waded into the (redistricting) discussion because the whole point of passing Proposition 11 was to get politicians out of the redistricting process.”
Approved by voters in November 2008, Proposition 11 promised “strict, non-partisan rules designed to ensure fair representation” and explicitly prohibited the redistricting commission from considering incumbents during the redistricting process.
“The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map. Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party,” Article XXI of the California State Constitution now reads.
Just in case there was any ambiguity, voters overwhelmingly affirmed the same language two years later with the passage of Proposition 20, the companion measure that added congressional districts to the commission’s purview. Both propositions heralded, “Every aspect of this process will be open to scrutiny by the public and the press.”
Technically, the commission has complied with this mandate; each commissioner’s application is publicly available on its website, WeDrawTheLines.ca.gov. But political watchdogs are beginning to question whether the commission is adequately following the spirit of its open disclosure mandate, especially when state auditors failed to discover three campaign contributions that are publicly available via the California Secretary of State’s website.
“The original goal of the redistricting reform movement was to select members who did not have significant past partisan interests,” said Dan Schnur, former chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “Legislative leaders were given veto power over commissioners for this very reason, which raises the question: Why didn’t they exercise their veto power?”
A senior staff member for a Republican legislator, who asked not to be identified for this story, offered a blunt explanation, “The truth is we’re idiots.” Another senior Republican legislative staffer described Republican legislative leaders’ approach to the redistricting process as “an inexcusable reluctance to spend the resources to research the background of the commissioners.”
Had Republican legislative leaders expended the resources to research Aguirre’s background, partisan political contributions would have been the least of Republicans’ concerns.
History of Latino Political Activism: MEChA and La Raza
In a June 2011 profile in his hometown paper, the Ventura County Star, Gabino Tlamatini Aguirre was described as the “manifestation of the California Dream.” Born in Mexico to a farm-working family with 10 children, he immigrated to Texas as a child and “followed the crops from Texas, to Oregon, to California, to Arizona.” After serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, Aguirre enrolled in college, where he was introduced to the Chicano-American political movement.
“He successfully transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara, where, motivated by the mobilization of his fellow Latinos during the Chicano Movement, he joined the La Raza Libre group and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán or MEChA,” writes Gustavo Adolfo Cubias II, who interviewed Aguirre on April 7 for his senior thesis at Claremont McKenna College.
MEChA and La Raza have been favorite targets of the Republican Party. It has been called a “radical racist group.” In a piece for Human Events in April 2006, the late Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Republican from Georgia, called MEChA “one of the most anti-American groups in the country.” Norwood’s criticism of the Chicano student group was based on the disputed interpretation of the organization’s motto, “For La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada” — “For The Race everything. Outside The Race, nothing.”
In her book, “Enriqueta Vasquez and the Chicano Movement: Writings from El Grito del Norte [the Shout from the North],” Chicana author Lorena Oropeza disputed this claim, and instead pointed to alternative evidence that suggested the motto was, “La union Hace la fuerza” — “Unity Creates Strength.”
MEChA’s motto may be disputed, but its fringe views are described in the “Philosophy” section of the organization’s website. The Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlánthe urges Chicanos to “reject assimilation,” references “brown pride,” and identifies “political involvement and education” as critical element for achieving their political objectives.
In 1969, Aguirre was likely to have encountered an organization even more radical than it is today. According to MEChA’s organizational history, the group’s defining principles are found in a document known as “El Plan de Aztlán.” Of El Plan’s six stipulations, the first states “We are Chicanas and Chicanos of Aztlán reclaiming the land of our birth (Chicana/Chicano Nation).”
Even within the Latino political community, La Raza and MEChA are viewed as controversial.
“It is my experience that some of the more extreme positions sometimes expressed by groups like MECHA and La Raza aren’t necessarily representative of the majority of Latinos living in California,” said Tim Rosales, vice-president of the Wayne Johnson Agency, which was honored in 2009 with the League of United Latin American Citizens‘ (LULAC) Social Justice Award. “It is a mistake and overly simplistic for anyone to treat the Chicano community as a monolithic group. There’s a diversity of opinions, experiences and beliefs.”
“La Raza Cosmica”
Based on a 2005 speech in Santiago, Chile, Aguirre hasn’t changed his philosophy during the past four decades. On his “Supplemental Application for Citizens Redistricting Commission,” Aguirre listed a “presentation on NWFZ local activities at OPANAL Conference in Santiago, Chile” as an activity which he believed was “relevant to serving as a commissioner.”
The Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL) describes itself on its website as “an inter-governmental agency created by the Treaty of Tlatelolco,” which seeks the end of nuclear weapons. Via OPANAL’s website, CalWatchDog.com also obtained a copy of Aguirre’s 2005 remarks, delivered in Spanish.
“Culturally, our orientation is toward the South and we feel a connection with the force, as Octavio Paz has said, of the cosmic race,” the translation of Aguirre’s remarks reads. “Politically, our community is subjected to a type of internal colonialism that has pushed us to the margin of society just as other minority groups and poor people. At the margin of society, we are exploited like working hands in agricultural camps, in the factories, and also like soldiers to fight interventionist and imperialist wars.”
Aguirre’s reference to Octavio Paz and “la raza cosmica” puzzled Dr. Jaime E. Rodríguez, director of Latin American Studies at the University of California, Irvine and co-author of the book, “The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico.”
“Octavio Paz did not discuss the concept of ‘La raza cosmica.’ It was the philosopher José Vasconcelos who coined the term. He perceived a time when Latin America would create a new people with the blending of four races –Europeans, Indians, Africans, and Asians,” explained Dr. Rodriguez in an email to CalWatchDog.com.
“Over-Correct for MALDEF”
Aguirre’s deep roots in Chicano-American activism could shed light on his sympathies during the redistricting process and affect the number of seats drawn for African-American and Asian-American candidates. Aguirre told the Santa Paula Times on December 17, 2010 that he was “sensitive to the needs of farmworkers.” The California Bureau of State Audits background investigation into Aguirre also forewarned of potential bias in favor of the Latino community.
“At the top of the list was ‘Latino/Latina issues (health, education . . .)’ and the interests of no other racial or ethnic group appeared on the list,” wrote the state’s non-partisan chief of investigations.
The federal Voting Rights Act, which protects minority groups from being systematically discriminated against or underrepresented in the political process, serves as the primary regulation overseeing ethnic representation in the redistricting process. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “prohibits not only election-related practices and procedures that are intended to be racially discriminatory, but also those that are shown to have a racially discriminatory impact.”
After its release of the first redistricting draft proposal, the California Redistricting Commission faced universal criticism from Latino organizations for drawing boundaries that reduced the number of Latino majority-minority districts. Census data show that California’s Latino population has risen to 37.6 percent of the state’s total population, which should mean an automatic increase in the number of Latino seats.
MALDEF responded to the maps’ gross under-representation of Latinos by releasing its own proposal. The MALDEF redistricting plan would have increased the number of combined Latino seats in the state Assembly and Senate and in the U.S. Congress from 26 to 37.
But some question MALDEF’s lines as being unfair to other minority groups.
“MALDEF did not draw a single Asian- or African-American district that met the same interpretation of the Voting Rights Act they used for Latino districts,” said Matt Rexroad, partner with Meridian Pacific, and a redistricting expert.
Rexroad warned that the effect of the commission’s error on the first proposal could lead to an over-correction on the final draft.
“The commission has always tried to make the last person that was at the podium happy. MALDEF was the ethnic group with the most legitimate complaint. The commission will probably over-correct to make MALDEF happy,” he said.
Zero-Sum Nature of Redistricting
The redistricting process is a zero-sum game, meaning the voters added to one district must be subtracted from a neighboring district. Thus, this protection of California Latinos could come at the expense of African-American and Asian-American voters. On July 12, the Los Angeles Times reported that a group called “California Friends of the African American Caucus” had attacked the commission for diluting “the number of black districts, particularly in the Greater Los Angeles area.”
Critics of the commission claim that this week’s announcement that the commission will not release the second draft of maps leaves the public in the dark about the process.
“The commission will issue no final draft maps,” complained Tony Quinn, a former Republican staffer and expert on redistricting who first reported on some of Aguirre’s political donations. “They will take a final vote on the maps around July 29. Then they apparently cannot change their maps prior to final approval and certification with the Secretary of State on August 15. So the public will have no opportunity for public input before final certification.”
Relationship with Redistricting Special Interest Group
Aguirre’s most questionable relationship that poses a potential conflict of interest for the redistricting process is his extensive connection to a special interest group, the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustained Economy (CAUSE).
CAUSE has organized workshops for its supporters to learn about the redistricting process, encouraged volunteers to testify before the commission and even proposed its own redistricting maps for the Central Coast. At the commission’s May hearing in Northridge, CAUSE was allotted 25 minutes to present its proposal to commissioners. CAUSE almost mobilized its activists to speak at the June 22 public hearing in Oxnard.
The mobilization effort appears to have paid off.
“The current ‘final’ maps for Ventura are very close to those proposed by CAUSE at the first public hearing in San Luis Obispo last winter,” Quinn explained.
As recently as July 14, Aguirre was listed as a member of CAUSE’s advisory board. However, CAUSE removed Aguirre’s name from its website sometime before this story was published. But it cannot eliminate one connection: a 2007 contribution from Aguirre to CAUSE. The Summer 2007 CAUSE newsletter lists “Dr. Gabino Aguirre” as the organization’s first Grassroots Supporter for having made a contribution of between $1-$499.
At the 2011 California LULAC State Convention, Commissioner Aguirre spoke on the same panel discussion as Maricela Morales, Co-Executive Director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy.
Aguirre’s support for the political activists behind CAUSE even precedes the creation of the organization.
Marcos Vargas, the executive director for CAUSE, previously worked from 1986-1995 as the executive director of a Ventura County Latino community advocacy organization, El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.
Among the qualifications listed by Aguirre on his application for the redistricting commission: “founding member of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.” As recently as December 2010, Aguirre’s continued to be actively involved with el Concilio.
At the special meeting of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors held on December 7, 2010 at the Santa Paula City Hall, Aguirre was honored because he “still makes time to be involved in community activities, such as being a founding board member of El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.”
According to the Santa Paula Times, such high praise was offered by none other than Democratic Supervisor Kathy Long, the same elected official who wrote to the commission on April 16 in support of Aguirre’s redistricting application.
These questions about Aguirre’s background seemingly contradict his low-key style and under-the-radar approach.
“He has a very quiet presence,” Commissioner Jeanne Raya of San Gabriel told the Ventura County Star. “He’s really able to explain things, and he really understands what forms a community.”
Aguirre’s failure to fully disclose his long history of political activism may have been due to his quiet presence. But it certainly raises new questions about whether the California Citizens Redistricting Commission is actually composed of average citizens.
Part 2 of this Series on Aguirre’s conflicts of interest is here: “Did Gabino Aguirre Flout Code of Conduct?“
May 19, 2013