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Photo by David KawashimaGaddi Vasquez's bid to become Peace Corps director has taken more hits than Tony Soprano. Since last summer, when President George W. Bush tapped the ex-county supervisor, countless former Peace Corps volunteers have questioned whether a man partly responsible for the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy—the largest in U.S. history—can properly supervise an agency with offices in 77 countries and an annual budget of $275 million. Critics also note that Vasquez has no international-relations, chief-executive or Peace Corps experience. They speculate that Vasquez's only real qualifications are ethnicity (he's a Texas-born Latino) and money (he gave Bush's California presidential campaign $100,000 from his own defunct supervisorial-campaign fund).
With the Vasquez nomination wobbling, local Latino leaders—even those who've criticized him in the past—have rallied, and not surprisingly, they're playing the race card.
In a message posted last week on the online message board of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Santa Ana chapter president Zeke Hernández asked, "Why . . . why do they hate us so much . . . is it because we are Latinos???"
The short answer is they don't, and, therefore, no.
Hernández offered as evidence of bias two items: an apparently apocryphal statement by a former Peace Corps director and an article in the Washington, D.C., paper The Hill.
According to Hernández, Jack Hood Vaughn, a Peace Corps director under Johnson and Nixon, told a Senate committee that Vasquez "had not even ever been out of the country, 'save one drunken night in Tijuana.' Direct quote." The quotation appears nowhere in Vaughn's congressional testimony, in news reports of that testimony, or in any comments attributed to Vaughn anywhere at any time.
(Hernández told the Weekly he received the quote from Larry Gonzalez of the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials Educational Fund in Washington, D.C. Gonzalez says he was present "with at least eight others" when Vaughn made the statement during congressional testimony.)
Hernández also cites a Dec. 5 opinion essay in The Hill by John Coyne, editor of the Peace Corps Writers magazine. In that article, Coyne wrote that Vasquez's confirmation hearing made it "clear to me, as a former Peace Corps recruiting official, that Vasquez would not even make the first cut to serve as a volunteer." Given that, Coyne argued, the only plausible explanation for the Vasquez nomination is that it might attract California Latino voters to the Republican Party.
That analysis is reasonable. Republicans make no secret of their belief that Latinos are an untapped source of GOP votes. And before he nominated Vasquez, Bush promised that the Peace Corps nomination would go to a Hispanic.
Nevertheless, Hernández urged followers to write Congress in defense of Vasquez. As a model for their efforts, Hernández included a letter from Frank Quevedo, vice president of Southern California Edison—the company that hired Vasquez as a six-figure "government relations" expert after the bankruptcy. In his letter, Quevedo says Vasquez "has never turned his back on those in need or shied away from difficult issues that confront society."
Never shied away? Quevedo conveniently forgets that Vasquez resigned from the Board of Supervisors in 1995—in the face of an 11 percent approval rating, a recall election and a grand jury investigation. A subsequent Securities and Exchange Commission investigation held Vasquez and his board colleagues responsible for the bankruptcy.
Despite that, most of the letters posted to the Santa Ana LULAC online message board by Latino bigwigs ignore Vasquez's role in the bankruptcy. Former LULAC district director Manny Marroquín said Vasquez's role in the bankruptcy was irrelevant. "To bring [the bankruptcy] to the surface in trying to beat down his nomination without further elaboration of the issue makes me suspect as to the integrity of those opposed to Gaddi," Marroquín wrote on the LULAC website.
Perhaps the most outlandish attempt at revising history came from OC Human Relations Commission executive director Rusty Kennedy. In his message, Kennedy wrote, "I think that the blame for the Orange County bankruptcy cannot be laid on his shoulders, but the adoption of a plan that led us out of that dark time can." Vasquez didn't draft the plan, but if he had, his supporters would wisely ignore it: the highly political recovery plan salvaged the interests of big real-estate developers, slashed spending on programs for the poor and the environment, and saddled the county with up to $80 million-per-year debt payments well into the century.
Vasquez supporters weren't always so blind to their man's deficiencies—or unwilling to race-bait him. In 1988, Hernández himself accused Vasquez of selling out Latinos in a land sale. In an open letter to Vasquez, Hernández wrote, "We Hispanics have once again been led astray by unexplained and unwarranted tactics of politicians who may speak Spanish but do not speak our language." But that was then.