Driving Miss Kathy

Photo by Jack GouldKatherine Smith's drive toward the 2002 elections she hopes will transform her from Anaheim school board member to California public school chief begins behind the wheel of her Cadillac.

It's 9:30 on a recent morning, and Smith is steering her late-model car through the gate to her lush estate. She's taking me on a tour of Anaheim's schools. First stop: an English learning-development class at South Junior High School.

“Good morning, ma'am!” the children chorus as we enter the room. There are 19 of them, all 12 or 13 years old, most of them from Mexico. “Good morning, sir!”

Smith smiles, I guess in silent triumph. She instituted the Stand In Respect (SIR) program—a Miss Manners-style code that calls upon students to stand and address any adult entering the classroom as “sir” or “madam.”

Through most of her tenure on the board of the Anaheim Union High School District, however, Smith has been best known for her alliance with Harald Martin, a fellow trustee and Anaheim police officer who doubles as a full-time anti-immigration activist. She still calls Martin her “good friend.”

But lately, some say Smith has severed her old ties with Martin in favor of a new rush of electoral ambition. Smith recently voted against Martin's proposal to station INS agents in city schools. Thanks to her vocal opposition to Martin on that issue, Smith attracted the support of some of Martin's fiercest critics, including Amin David, chairman of the Latino civic group Los Amigos of Orange County.

“Katherine Smith has moderated her stand on immigration,” he says. “She has opposed the racist policies of Harald Martin, and she has some very innovative ideas about how our children should be educated.”

Los Amigos has not yet endorsed Smith, but David is among those who support her run.

Even so, Smith is a very long shot—both because of her slim credentials and a fat history of failure by Orange County candidates in statewide elections. In fact, it's so unusual for an OC candidate to win a statewide post that the last one to do so was a Democrat—in 1974, when Ken Cory became state controller. Among the losers: William “Caveman” Dannemeyer, former Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle and U.S. Senate hopeful John Seymour. Unlike the rest of state politics, Smith's brand of conservatism hasn't changed much since those days.

Smith may not even get the chance to run against a Democrat because outside Orange County, she's a nobody. And she'll be facing Lynne Leach, a conservative from the East Bay, in the Republican primary March 5.

“Leach has credentials as an elected Republican,” says A.G. Block, executive editor of California Journal. “Given the slim resources the party has for this kind of race, [the party] would likely look for someone who has that electoral track record. Clearly, Leach does, and Katherine Smith does not. Leach has a track record in Sacramento, and Smith hasn't made any kind of impact there to speak of.”

For someone campaigning to become California's next superintendent of public instruction, Smith seems more concerned about whether Anaheim's Latino residents are mowing their lawns and obeying city codes.

Her tour of Anaheim's schools becomes a journey through its barrios, a two-hour trek that feels like a code-enforcement operation. It's clear Smith is familiar with the territory; she often explores it in the company of Orange County Supervisor Cynthia Coad, who lives near the Smiths. She points at a recently painted building on Brookhurst. “Cindy and I got rid of the business that used to be here,” Smith boasts. “It was a 'Hock-it-to-Doc'—you know, a pawn shop. It was disgusting.”

Smith steers her Cadillac through a mini-mall farther down Brookhurst. She points at a massage parlor with tinted windows. “These are houses of prostitution,” she declares, shaking her head. “The last time Cindy and I drove through here, two hookers actually waved hello to us.”

Some of Anaheim's poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods are within walking distance from Brookhurst, including Jeffrey-Lynne, Wakefield and La Colonia de Independencia. The narrow streets are full of cars. Many front yards are unmowed; three, four or even five vehicles are crammed into some of the driveways, and children's bicycles lie abandoned curbside.

Smith brings me here to tell me about her friend Martin, the man liberals and Latinos would like to believe Smith has abandoned. She speaks of him as a hero.

“Harald Martin told the apartment owners in this neighborhood to evict the gang members,” Smith explains. “Without any real help, over a period of years, Harald cleaned this place up. Now there's no broken glass, no guns.” Indeed, for every run-down house and abandoned-looking car, there seems to be at least one freshly painted house with a manicured lawn and a new SUV in the driveway. The apartment buildings that Smith tells me Martin has cleansed of gang members seem well-kept, almost upscale.

“We've really cleaned this place up,” Smith observes. “If you had been here just two years ago, you really would have been aghast.”

As Smith drives on, she repeatedly waxes nostalgic about the days when “people were more civil,” before she was awakened at night by “machine-gun fire” around Latino apartment buildings just down the street—but worlds away—from her gated home.

Yet Smith is a warm and loquacious host, so voluble and enthusiastic about explaining her mission that she almost hits an oncoming car while making a left turn because she's so distracted.

Hours after she dropped me off, Smith phones to share one last anecdote. It involves a Somali family recently arrived in Anaheim. To Smith, the story perfectly illustrates the challenges facing public education in California.

“The family was one husband, three wives and 17 children,” Smith tells me. “We had to put all 17 children in their very own portable classroom with their very own teacher. And do you know what we had to teach them first, even before how to speak English? How to use the bathroom.”

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