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Governor Agrees to Re-finance. Promises to visit Richmond Schools

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  • Sharon J.
    Friday, June 4, 2004 San Francisco Chronicle Chronicle Sections Hunger fast helped by a celebrity Chip Johnson A fast by a group of East Bay education
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 7, 2004
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      Friday, June 4, 2004
      San Francisco Chronicle
      Chronicle Sections

      Hunger fast helped by a celebrity
      Chip Johnson

      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
      added.

      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
      Hernandez.

      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.
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