Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Trustee Fuentes’ Spanish Adventure —or “No one would do that!”

“Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support. I see no reason to send the students of our colleges to Spain at this moment in history.”

—Tom "Big-Foot" Fuentes
February 28, 2005:

Board Meeting: on this night, the Board is asked to approve a summer “study abroad” program in Santander, Spain. Trustee Fuentes suggests that he will vote against the item in part because Spain has “abandoned our fighting men and women” by pulling out of Iraq.

Four other trustees follow Fuentes’ lead with regard to the item, though they cite a concern for students’ safety, not Spain's politics.

Student Trustee Poulton expresses concern about a “political precedent”—that is, rejecting a program owing to the politics of the host country.

Program approval is denied on a 2-5 vote. (Milchiker and Lang cast affirmative votes, joining student trustee Poulton, whose vote is advisory.)

Fuentes’ remarks are videotaped. By the next morning, transcripts of the remarks are produced. Within a day or two, the transcripts and a DVD containing the video are provided to the Orange County Register’s Marla Jo Fisher.

A columnist for the OC Weekly also receives the transcripts.

Soon, Fuentes will find himself at the center of an embarrassing media firestorm.

March 4:

In the online edition of OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano reminds readers of Fuentes’ controversial history as head of the local GOP. He reports that the “vindictive” Mr. Fuentes has now launched a “campaign against Spain.” According to Arellano:

Fuentes unveiled his new crusade at the Feb. 28 SOCCCD Board of Trustees meeting, when he requested a discussion on Item 10…The item would have allowed Saddleback College students to study abroad in Santander, Spain, during the summer. It wasn’t expected to generate much controversy; the SOCCCD board has allowed Saddleback students to learn Spanish in the Iberian country for the past 15 years.

But Fuentes shocked everyone in the audience when he began to assail his ancestral home. "One hundred ninety-five years ago, in 1810, my family arrived on this continent from Spain, so I have an affection for that land," Fuentes said. But he quickly dropped the amicable pretense, simultaneously attacking Saddleback College’s study abroad program as catering to "an elite" and as a death wish given the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings that left 193 dead.

Terror wasn’t what disturbed Fuentes the most, though. "Now: something more," he intoned sternly. "Many of our students in this college, and of its sister college Saddleback and Irvine, past and future today, fight on the battlefield of Iraq under the flag that is behind us. Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support. I see no reason to send the students of our colleges to Spain at this moment in history."

Arellano notes the strangeness of Fuentes’ reasoning:

For the 2004-2005 academic year, SOCCCD trustees have approved study abroad to Cambodia, China, New Zealand and Vietnam, all countries with administrations that oppose the U.S. Invasion of Iraq. And Fuentes & Co. also permitted district-funded student trips to Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.; last year, each of these cities passed resolutions condemning the Iraq war (and on Sept. 11, 2001, each was as dangerous as Madrid was on March 11, 2004).

Indeed, notes Arellano, two months after the Madrid bombing, a group of Saddleback students visited Spain, and not one solitary squawk of concern was voiced by the Board, including Trustee Fuentes.

March 5:

On Saturday, an article concerning the “study abroad” decision appears in the OC Register:

"Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support," said trustee Tom Fuentes, who spearheaded the vote to end the 15-year-old program. "I see no reason to send the students of our colleges to Spain at this moment in history."

…UC Irvine professor Jacobo Sefami, who runs the University of California's program there, said Spain is still a U.S. ally.

"I strongly disagree with the use of politics as a motivating factor to disallow an academic program," he said in an e-mail from his Madrid office. Right now, 18 Saddleback College students are in Salamanca, Spain, on a spring semester abroad, Saddleback professor Carmenmara Hernandez-Bravo said. There are no plans to tell them to return. About 30 students had been planning to take the 37-day summer session to Santander in northern Spain to study Spanish civilization and language, Hernandez-Bravo said. The college is planning trips this year to Cambodia and Vietnam.

… Marcia Milchiker, a trustee who took the summer program to Spain last year, retorted that two students were pistol-whipped outside the University of Southern California recently and that terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York.

"Why are you letting them dictate what we do?" Milchiker said. "Are you going to stay in your house in a bomb shelter all the time?"

In its online edition, the Register provides the video of Fuentes sternly explaining his vote against the program.

The Register article broaches the question of Fuentes’ possible hidden motives:

Several faculty members alleged in interviews afterward that the vote was intended to punish Hernandez-Bravo, the trip's organizer, for past criticism of the board, particularly Fuentes….

Fuentes said it was "absurd" to suggest he was trying to punish her.

Hernandez-Bravo said she didn't think the board's refusal to approve the annual trip was directed at her.

"No one would do that, disappoint the students, just to get back at one person," Hernandez-Bravo said.

In an article that appears in “Inside Higher Ed,” more light is shed on Fuentes' possible “punishment” motive:

[Some of Hernandez-Bravo’s colleagues believe] that Fuentes was punishing her for suggesting in a television interview last year that she would have flunked him for comments he made complaining about faculty members' light workload, "because before you speak in my class, you have to do your research."

No doubt, Hernandez-Bravo's "flunk" comment was a response to Fuentes’ remarks in a TV interview in 2004 in which he asserted, falsely, that SOCCCD faculty have a "36-hour work week" and that their average pay is $100,000 per year. (See Dissent ARCHIVES, October 28, 2005.)

The charming Ms. Hernandez-Bravo's criticism, made at a Board meeting in Fuentes' presence, was both strong and rhetorically winning. (She is a former diplomat.)

March 6:

On Sunday, the LA Times weighs in:

"Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support," said trustee Tom Fuentes…Fuentes, former head of the Republican Party in Orange County, said he also had concerns about student safety…When asked why students were allowed to go to Spain just three months after the Madrid bombings, Fuentes replied, "I think the terrorist situation is all the more prevalent and obvious today."

Professor Carmenmara Hernandez-Bravo, who runs the study-abroad program, said she was stunned by the board's decision. "I'm still in shock," she said. "I cannot believe a community college can put this much politics into academics."

…In deciding against sending students to Spain, board members also cited high program costs and potential liability to the school district.

"I think it's an affront to the working-student community who often utilizes the junior college system to propose a program of five weeks of study that is nearly $5,000," Fuentes said in a telephone interview Saturday.

The cost of the 37-day trip to Santander, Spain, is about $4,400 including meals, housing, transportation, books and airfare, Hernandez-Bravo said. But while rejecting the $119-per-day Spain trip, she said, the board approved a 14-day trip to Florence, Italy, costing $204 per day without airfare and some meals.

March 7:

On Monday, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the “Study abroad” matter:

[Hernandez-Bravo] said the students were safer in Spain than in parts of Los Angeles. "I feel a little more concerned," she said, "when I take my students to South Central LA when I take them to the Museum of Tolerance."…

And she said that the board had approved other trips at the same meeting that were more expensive and that included countries that have not sent troops to Iraq. "I'm confused," said Ms. Hernandez-Bravo. "I don't know the real reason" for the decision.

Mr. Fuentes could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

Ms. Hernandez-Bravo has sent an e-mail message to the college district's chancellor, Raghu P. Mathur, protesting the decision. She said she also plans to forward the message to Spanish and U.S. officials.

"Whatever Trustee Fuentes believes about Spain and its role as our ally, his personal political beliefs should have no part in determining the fate of a long-standing, successful, academic program," she wrote in the message. "It is irresponsible for a public official to make such remarks at a board meeting, because by doing so he is politicizing the educational process."

March 11:

On March 10, a columnist for USC’s “Daily Trojan” opines that Fuentes’ action and his reasoning are “inappropriately political.” (Dozens of articles and commentaries regarding the "study abroad" decision appear both in print and on TV; I am here providing a mere sample. As far as I know, no one defends Fuentes' reasoning.)

On the 11th, LA Times columnist Dana Parsons weighs in, emphasizing Fuentes’ controversial record as chair of the local Republican Party:

Leave it to Tom Fuentes to big-foot a situation. That was his calling card during the 20 years he ran the Orange County Republican Party, crushing enemies real and imagined.

If you want a handle on how Fuentes saw his job, picture Orange County as a house and Democrats as termites. Even peskier than Democrats, though, were Republicans who dared to challenge the party orthodoxy.

Fuentes' 20-year reign ended last year, and you'd think he might then have dropped from sight. Unfortunately, he's got the itch again, back as the apparent point man behind a decision to cancel a program that sends students to study in Spain.

…To state the obvious: Safety is an issue for the students and their parents to weigh. Fuentes' lament about the cost would make sense only if the district paid the bill. As for terrorists, the Basque separatists have been fighting the government for years and Islamic terrorists have shown they can strike any country in the world.

No, the only new factor is Spain's decision to pull its troops from Iraq and the year-old Socialist government's opposition to U.S. policy.

Parsons notes Fuentes’ effort to distance himself from his stated political motive:

I don't buy it for a minute.

This is Fuentes playing politics again with the same high-handedness he always has, couched in the same high-mindedness he developed into an art form. It was a tiresome act that eventually led many of the county's rank-and-file Republican leaders to want new party leadership.

Now he's taken his act to college.

Same old Tom Fuentes. Looking for enemies and finding them.

March 13:

The Register reports that Hernandez-Bravo has become something of a folk hero:

These days Carmenmara Hernandez-Bravo can't go anywhere on the Mission Viejo campus of Saddleback College without being stopped and cheered on.

"Are you going to Spain?" a dean asks.

"Of course I'm going to Spain," Hernandez-Bravo responds with a hint of humor and defiance in her voice.

Students, professors, support staff—everyone has an opinion.

"That's all we can do, be there for each other," a professor tells Hernandez-Bravo after a warm embrace. Another colleague blanketed her office walls with bright yellow fliers reading "bravíssima," a play on her last name and her courage. Students have inundated her with e-mails, and everyone from ABC to NPR is requesting interviews.

In the article, Fuentes stands by his decision while distancing himself from his political motives:

"I reserve the right, as I'm sure any citizen does, to comment," he says. "The decision to cancel the program was on the basis of cost, safety and liability risk. My concern for fighting men and women in the uniform of our land was not the reason the board voted 5 to 2."

So why bring it up? That's Hernandez-Bravo's question.

Fuentes joins other board members in emphasizing the “safety” issue, but the Register reporter is skeptical:

Hmmm. If safety comes first, why didn't Fuentes speak up last year when the summer study-abroad students arrived in Santander, Spain, just four months after the terrorist train bombings in Madrid?

Hernandez-Bravo says that trip went without incident, and she describes Santander as one of the safest cities in Europe.

Former Saddleback College student Brian E. Siedlecki said it best in his letter to Chancellor Mathur: "Having spent time in Santander, I can assure you it is as likely to be victimized by a terrorist attack as Modesto, California."

And what about Saddleback's study-abroad students who are in Salamanca, Spain, this semester, as in, right now. Isn't Fuentes concerned for their safety?

Fellow trustee Marcia Milchiker was quick to point out the holes in Fuentes' safety arguments, mainly that the U.S. is just as likely to be attacked, i.e. Sept. 11.

But Fuentes brushed off her concerns and told me: "I don't think that such comparisons without full information is worthy intellectually."

March 18:

In his “Diary of a Mad County” column in the OC Weekly, Steve Lowery connects the “study abroad” controversy to Orange County’s struggles to overcome its right-wing “wacko” image:

[On March 10,] Spaniards observe[d] a moment of silence for the 191 people who died in a terrorist train bombing last year. One of those not observing silence or even on the premises is frequent OC house guest and prime minister at the time of the attacks, Jose Maria Aznar, who was in Mexico at the time, perhaps looking for his soul. Spain eventually pulled its troops out of Iraq, which eventually led the South Orange County Community College District, under the equally soulless thumb of former local Republican jefe Tom Fuentes, to cancel its study abroad program in Spain. While this will have little to no effect on Spain, it is yet another humiliation for Orange County, which seemed to be emerging from the hick/wacko shadow of the likes of Bob Dornan, Bill Dannemeyer, John Schmitz, John Birch and Wally George. In fact, Orange County’s reputation has taken such a hit that the likes of Mississippi is looking down on us. Missif*ckingssippi! Prior to this, the only place Mississippi has been able to look down on is pre-wheel Mesopotamia….

March 22:

At its March meeting, many people, including at least one soldier, address the board, passionately urging trustees to reverse the February decision. Virtually no one speaks in defense of the action.

The board votes to rescind its decision of February and to approve the Santander trip--by a 5-2 vote with Fuentes and Wagner again casting negative votes. (Padberg, Williams, and Jay change their votes to approval, joining Lang and Milchiker.)

March 25:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that

A community college in California that canceled a study-abroad program to Spain this month for political and safety reasons has reversed its decision.

Trustees of the South Orange County Community College District initially voted three weeks ago to close the program...One board member...said it would be unpatriotic to send students to Spain after that country's decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq (The Chronicle, March 7).

But on Tuesday the trustees changed their minds. Worries about cost and liability were sorted out, according to the district's chancellor, Raghu P. Mathur. And the trustee who brought up Spain's position in Iraq subsequently dropped that issue, Mr. Mathur said, though news reports indicated that the trustee still voted against the program….

April 1:

OC Weekly’s Gustavo Arellano writes a mock letter to Fuentes:

It’s been a bit more than a year since you stepped down as chairman of Orange County’s Republican Party, a position you held for 20 years. Now you sit in the Siberia of politics known as the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD) Board of Trustees. What happened?

I’m reminded of the story of Pyrrhus…That’s been your political career, Tom. As you led the Orange County Republican Party to dominate a region in a way unseen in local government since the days of Tammany Hall, you also ensured your political doom. Petty fights, bizarre grudges, besmirchments: if you had avoided all of that, you’d still be the pontificus maximus of the county GOP. Instead you’ll spend the rest of your political days doodling on agendas through another stultifying SOCCCD board meeting and dreaming of the Balboa Bay Club.

Arellano then provides a bulleted summary of Fuentes’ remarkable political career, which ends with this item:

Feb. 28, 2005: You persuaded four colleagues on the Board of Trustees to cancel Saddleback College’s summer study-abroad program to Spain because the country had pulled its troops from Iraq. The decision drew national ridicule and outraged the locals; under heavy pressure, the SOCCCD board rescinded your decision on March 22 by a 5-2 vote. And, again, Latinos laughed at the GOP.


October 24, 2005:

At it's October 2005 meeting, the Board votes to approve Saddleback College's study abroad program to Salamanca, Spain for Spring 2006. There was no discussion.

Fuentes and Wagner, offering no explanation, voted against the item. (See ARCHIVES, Oct. 25, 2005.)

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