Governor Agrees to Re-finance. Promises to visit Richmond Schools
- Friday, June 4, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
Hunger fast helped by a celebrity
A fast by a group of East Bay education activists in the shadow of the
state Capitol tried to accomplish this week what no Hollywood producer
would ever dream of trying: casting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the
role of the villain.
There were embarrassing moments during last year's governor's race
about his alleged harassment of women, although none of it struck with
enough force to recast Schwarzenegger's public image from that of a
silver-screen hero to a hedonistic celebrity.
But when protest organizers, who led a 70-mile march from San Pablo to
Sacramento in April, realized it would take a lot more than the
remaining three starving education activists to get the attention of
the governor, they recruited a celebrity of their own.
On Monday, they called in the heavy artillery -- well-known activist
Dolores Huerta. The group, which had been demanding more funding for
the state's poorest public schools, also asked for help from liberal
Hollywood actors Martin Sheen and Danny Glover.
And today, they're expected to end the fast that began May 10 outside
Oakland City Hall. On Thursday, the governor pledged to provide the
West Contra Costa Unified School District -- where several of the
original nine hunger-strikers work in the public schools -- with an
opportunity to refinance the balance on a $28.5 million bailout loan
at 1.6 percent, a huge break on the original deal at 6 percent.
"Getting someone like Dolores involved, given her history, brings
legitimacy to this in some people's eyes,'' said Gabriel Hernandez,
one of the protest organizers. "It's Hollywood versus Hollywood,'' he
Huerta, a former vice president of the United Farm Workers, gained
national notoriety when she was battered by San Francisco police at an
anti- George H.W. Bush rally in September 1988. Huerta suffered two
broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and spent six days in a hospital as
a result of the beating.
Her willingness to take the beating and keep on going is what has
brought her recognition as a real-life hero, not an actor playing a role.
Her arrival in Sacramento yielded immediate results and moved liberal
legislators -- and our celebrity governor -- to action in a way that
the activists were unable to do. The first thing she did was put in a
call to Bobby Kennedy Jr. to request a meeting with the governor,
whose wife, Maria Shriver, is a member of the Kennedy family.
Then the civil rights advocate turned up the heat on Democratic
legislators who began to trickle out of their offices and over to the
south Capitol lawn to ask about the fasters' welfare. First came
Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh of East Los Angeles, followed by Los
Angeles Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and Berkeley's own Loni Hancock.
By mid-week, in no small part due to Huerta's lobbying and her
widespread appeal in the Latino community, the logjam appeared to be
breaking up. About the only thing unaccounted for was Schwarzenegger's
ego, which was yet to play a part in the political theater.
Late Wednesday, Hancock's office drafted a letter supporting the
protesters that was sent to the governor's office with the signatures
of 42 members of the Legislature.
It was followed by a resolution authored by Firebaugh that
acknowledged the protesters' concerns and pledged a legislative
commitment to work on a plan that would establish a formula for the
equitable distribution of education funding based on need.
The resolution created a stir in the governor's office, mainly because
the language offended him and some of his most-trusted aides, who
thought it made the governor look insensitive.
An agreement was finally reached Thursday that would at least
partially meet the protesters' demands. Schwarzenegger agreed to offer
the refinancing option to the West Contra Costa district, and press
spokeswoman Ashley Snee said that policy would extend to all
California districts with bailout loans. The governor also promised to
visit some Richmond schools in the fall to get a first-hand look at
their resources and the demands and problems facing them.
"His offer to see the kids will bring some dignity back to the
community, because he will not be able to deny what he sees,'' said
The governor's acquiescence on the state bailout loans is a long way
from the protesters' original demands to fully fund Prop 98, establish
an equitable distribution of state education funds according to
greatest need and totally forgive the school district's unpaid debt,
but it's a start.
"I think what we were seeing were very unpolitical people speaking
from the depths of their desperation about the hope that education
brings,'' Hancock said of the hunger strikers.
Hernandez was admittedly pleased with the attention their cause received.
"I think when the Assembly spends a day on your demands, it is pretty
telling about the influence we've had on the politicians here,'' he said.
Especially when you have a celebrated person, whether it's an author,
actor or activist, to lead the fight. In the capital of the nation's
most- populated state, the best way to drive home a point with a
celebrity governor is to come up with a celebrity of your own.
E-mail Chip Johnson at chjohnson@... or write to him at
483 Ninth Street, Suite 100, Oakland, CA. 94607.