News Column

California Governor Reappoints Hispanic Representative to Commission

April 21, 2003

Aurelio Rojas

Countering charges that retired U.S. Rep. Esteban Torres was treated like "a migrant worker," Gov. Gray Davis reversed himself and reappointed Torres to the state Transportation Commission, a spokesman said Thursday.

The East Los Angeles Democrat said he was "incensed" when the governor's aides asked him to step down from the panel and become a trustee of the California State University system or a member of the State Board of Education.

"I said I wanted to stay on the Transportation Commission," said Torres, who developed an expertise on the subject during his 16 years in Congress.

As one of the first Latinos from California elected to Congress, the 73-year-old Torres is revered by members of the Legislature's Democratic Latino Caucus.

Word of his apparent ouster angered caucus members. Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, chairman of the 24-member caucus, fired off a letter urging Davis to reappoint Torres to another four-year term.

Firebaugh, D-South Gate, also requested a meeting with the Democratic governor "to discuss other appointments and vacancies" in the administration. The issue of diversity on the state's boards and commissions has been a simmering concern among caucus members.

State Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, charged that Torres was treated like a "migrant worker" by being asked to move to another board to fill a "Latino slot."

"There are so many other able Latinos that we've recommended to the governor who've been more than willing to serve," Romero said.

Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio defended the governor's appointment record, saying Davis has named more Latinos to state panels than any governor in California history.

Maviglio said Torres' ethnicity had nothing to do with the governor's request that he serve on another state board. The governor has rotated other appointees, Maviglio added, asking them to serve on one board after completing another appointment. He cited four examples since 1999.

"(Torres) is the only one who has squawked," Maviglio said. "He shouldn't take it personally. We have great respect for him."

Torres, who retired from Congress in 1998, said he was led to believe he was being reappointed to the transportation panel, which sets spending priorities for highway and transit projects.

He said he received a March 28 letter from Davis informing him of the reappointment, which he signed and returned. But Maviglio said the governor did not intend to have Torres serve out the four-year term.

"(Torres) insisted that he wanted to attend one meeting (April 3), which we granted," Maviglio said. "That's called respect."

Torres said he wanted to attend the meeting so he could vote on three important Los Angeles County projects.

But Torres said that the night before the meeting, Michael Yamaki, the governor's appointments secretary, called to tell him Davis wanted to appoint him to one of the education panels.

Torres said he protested, but agreed to Yamaki's request that he sign an undated letter of resignation so that he could vote at the transportation meeting.

Maviglio said the letter of resignation was sought because "we don't want people serving on two boards" -- and Davis intended to appoint Torres to the CSU panel.

Torres said that since then, Davis' staff has pressured him to resign from the Transportation Commission.

On Thursday, Maviglio said the governor had reconsidered and agreed to allow Torres to complete another term on the commission.

Maviglio said Yamaki had been trying since Wednesday to relay the news to Torres, but his telephone calls had not been returned.

"Who knows what games they're playing?" Maviglio wondered.

Told by The Bee that the governor's office was trying to reach him, Torres said the information was not relayed to him until after business hours Wednesday.

"That's great," Torres responded when told he was being reappointed.

Maviglio rejected allegations by Torres and Romero that the effort to remove the former congressman from the commission showed a lack of respect toward Latinos. Maviglio noted that Latinos have singled out education as a top priority, which is why the governor wanted Torres to serve in an education capacity.

"How can (the Latino Caucus) be mad at us when that's what they want?" Maviglio asked, noting that Firebaugh introduced legislation last year designed to increase diversity on the state Board of Education.

The measure was vetoed by Davis, who on Wednesday appointed a Latino community activist to fill a vacancy on the board. Luis J. Rodriguez, a public defense attorney, would be the second Latino on the 11-member board if confirmed by the Senate.

"Big deal," said Romero, noting Latinos make up more than 40 percent of the public school enrollment. "There's been four vacancies on the board for a while, and he waits until now?"

Romero charged that Davis rewards campaign donors with appointments and slights minorities and women who provided him with a margin of victory in his re-election campaign.

"We ought to require appointees to list political contributions on their applications," said Romero, a member of the Senate Rules Committee, which confirms gubernatorial appointees.

Romero contends Davis' appointees were only marginally more diverse than Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's during their first terms in office.

In a recent letter to Democratic colleagues, Romero noted that of the 596 confirmable appointments made by Davis, 74 percent were Caucasians, compared with 79 percent by Wilson. She said 9.4 percent were Latinos (compared with 6.4 by Wilson), and 7.6 percent were Asians (compared with 4.2 by Wilson).

Maviglio said Romero's data only reflect appointments requiring approval by the Rules Committee. He said Davis has otherwise doubled the percentage of Latino appointees.

And Maviglio said the percentage of Davis' Latino judicial appointees -- 13 percent -- far surpasses Wilson's 5 percent and greatly exceeds the percentage of Latinos in the legal profession.

Source: (c) 2003, The Sacramento Bee, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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