By The Book
Jose Castañeda can’t seem to shake the controversy that’s dogged him for years - but that might be precisely what Salinas needs.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Salinas City hall was packed on Dec. 18, as an overflow crowd filled the hallway to watch as Mayor Joe Gunter, Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa and Councilman Jose Castañeda were sworn in to office. But when the ceremony began, Castañeda wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
Murmurs in the hallways could be heard asking for Castañeda’s whereabouts; outgoing Councilman Sergio Sanchez, who would administer the oath of office to his successor, answered with a whispered joke: “Lost.”
They skipped him and started the meeting.
The first 15 minutes of public comment to the City Council passed. Speakers mostly defended a recent decision by the Alisal Union School District – where Castañeda still serves on the board, despite opponents questioning the legality of him holding both offices at once – to name an elementary school after Tiburcio Vasquez, a California bandido executed for murder in 1875. (Castañeda, along with the four other members of the school board, voted unanimously in favor of the name.)
“This is not the first time people like you have attempted to lynch the Alisal School District,” one community member said in response to critics of the Vasquez name.
Upon his arrival, Castañeda settled in so quietly much of the room didn’t even notice. He appeared unhurried.
After a perfunctory recitation of the oath of office, he quickly thanked voters for their support – in Spanish, Hebrew, Korean and then English.
In his very first vote as a councilman – after asking the most specific, meaningful questions of anyone on the dais regarding negotiations with DeepWater Desal – he had no qualms about voting against the majority.
This sort of contradiction seems to follow Castañeda everywhere. He connects quickly across languages and issues, but alienates established politicians. He identifies strongly with activists who view the Alisal as an oppressed neighborhood, but has been an elected official holding power for more than a decade. He’s soft-spoken and charming, but has a past spotted with an ugly domestic violence charge. He runs school board meetings as an exacting timekeeper, even though he’s often late to meetings – even his own swearing in. But even when tardy, he’s consistently well-prepared.
These contradictions have made him in a magnet for controversy wherever he goes, earning him passionate admirers, but also a good number of critics – most of whom are unwilling to talk on the record, fearful of damaging their reputations or crossing Castañeda’s powerful allies.
Like Vasquez, the new school’s namesake, Castañeda is a relentless hero fighting for oppressed people – or a self-interested powermonger.
It all depends on who you ask.
• • •
As Anglos edged in on California during the Gold Rush, Tiburcio Vasquez fought against what Castañeda and his supporters – and some scholars – consider an illegal taking of land, acting as something of a civil rights champion in his day. Hence the controversy surrounding the school name: Some feel it appropriately honors a hero, others think it glorifies a criminal.
To Castañeda, the dynamic hasn’t changed much: Latinos battling oppression are still being marginalized. Similarly, Castañeda feels his persistent ambition has been unfairly recast by his critics as belligerence.
One thing is less debatable: For better or worse, friction follows Castañeda.
In Castañeda’s first year of a two-year term as school board president, he didn’t actually have any authority. The State Board of Education voted in March 2010 to strip the Alisal Union board of its powers, instead assigning a state trustee, Carmella Franco, to oversee the district. “The State Board of Education determined that immediate action was necessary to preserve the district’s resources in order to protect the public interest,” a board announcement stated.
Castañeda and the district maintain the state intervention was illegal, and in June, they filed a claim with the state seeking a $21,097 refund for vacation pay that went to Franco, plus $10,000 in legal fees.
“Even when the state board took over, they saw our district as a big old piggy bank and made millions of dollars for themselves,” Castañeda says.
Franco’s contract ended a year early, leaving then-president Castañeda with the reins. He says the board, under his leadership, has taken the district to a more stable place.
Alisal Union Superintendent John Ramirez fired nine of 11 principals in the past two years, and within the past three, two board members resigned and one was recalled.
“At the school district, I felt alone for eight years,” Castañeda says. “All five of us now are pro-community, pro-education, pro-change.”
Even with the state intervention, he views his tenure there as a success. He points to a 21-percent reserve where a deficit once loomed, a new superintendent and test scores on the rise.
“If it was the wrong direction, then I would not be here right now,” he says. “That same community that was behind me then is behind me now.”
Supporters have stuck by Castañeda despite some dark times. He allegedly challenged an elected official to a fist fight on two occasions outside of school board and water meetings. He faced criminal charges last year in a botched attempt to launch a recall against County Supervisor Fernando Armenta, and he faced charges of domestic violence in 2003 related to a fight with his son’s mother. He represented himself in court and was acquitted on one charge of inflicting bodily injury, and convicted for one of battery. He was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service and was on probation for three years, during which time he ran for mayor unsuccessfully against Anna Caballero, now a member of Gov. Jerry Brown’s cabinet.
Castañeda’s ambitious, but says he himself has surprisingly little to do with it – he attributes much of his success to God. He says he’s guided by his faith, which has its origins in Christianity, though he’s been studying weekly with a rabbi for two years.
“I didn’t know where it was taking me to, but now with City Council, it was almost like I was getting prepped,” he says. “All these texts talk about how God has literally changed governments.”
According to Castañeda, he asked himself a simple question that led him to hold political power: “God, how is it that I can be used for your glory?”
• • •
Castañeda running for City Council at all was something of an accident, but it was also a calculated political move. He decided to run only after a last-minute extension of the filing deadline after ally Sergio Sanchez failed to submit enough nomination signatures to run for re-election. “If he qualified for that seat, then there was no need for me to run for that seat,” Castañeda told the Weekly last fall.
The Democratic party and Salinas power brokers scrambled to find a candidate. They picked Margie Wiebusch, a union rep for Hartnell College’s chapter of California School Employees Association, and coordinator of Hartnell’s foster and kinship care education program.
She out-spent Castañdeda $3,600 to $0 (correctional officer Josh Kuzmicz led with $6,600). Wiebusch also had the support of institutions like the Central Labor Council and elected officials like Fernando Armenta, EvaMarie Martinez of the Salinas Union High School board and Salinas City Councilwoman Gloria De La Rosa.
Castañeda, who often quotes state law and board manuals from memory, is a stickler for process. He wouldn’t stop complaining to the media about Wiebusch’s signature gathering to get her name on the ballot. One morning he described a “hypothetical situation” to Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz after running into him at Rollick’s Specialty Coffee in Oldtown Salinas. In the scenario, a candidate didn’t circulate nomination papers herself, but then signed an affidavit claiming she did.
“I thought he was talking about a hypothetical situation,” Spitz joked. Following the election, the DA launched a perjury investigation in Wiebusch, which is expected to wrap up this month.
Where Castañeda saw a pursuit of justice, others saw thuggery.
“I was a little bit hurt the way they treated Margie Wiebusch,” Councilman Tony Barrera says. “They really discredited her. Here’s a woman really trying to serve her community, and she got hurt.”
That’s consistent with how some Latino elected officials view Castañeda and his allies – as a band of bullies in a blood sport.
“Intimidation is powerful,” says one local Latino elected official who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity. “Jose by himself, he can’t do much. But when they get together as a group, they’re abrasive.”
On a recent Friday night, a half-dozen Chicano men sitting around a pop-up table hardly seem like a force to be reckoned with. They’re drinking black coffee and still wearing their winter jackets against the chill of a bare meeting room at a union office on Pajaro Street in Salinas.
They’re a group of activists known as The Coalition, and their ranks include those who spoke in favor of naming the Alisal’s new school after Tiburcio Vasquez – and who think the notorious 19th-century bandido’s battle is far from over.
“When a white army battles Native Americans and wins, it’s called a victory. When it loses, it’s called a massacre. That kind of bullshit is still happening today in the Hispanic community,” says Hartnell College trustee Demetrio Pruneda.
Castañeda is relatively quiet as the other officials – Pruneda and Ray Montemayor are Hartnell trustees, David Serena and Francisco Estrada both Monterey County Board of Ed trustees – talk about education and oppression and the need to get more Latinos elected.
“Knowledge is very important,” Pruneda says. “Parents are already aware of inequalities in Salinas. If we keep talking to them, we will have a lot of people involved in the education of their children.”
Talking to people is the way this group gets candidates elected at all. They’re reluctant to go on the record about their secret sauce for winning elections, though it’s not much of a secret: They knock on doors. “We’re outspent 20 to one all the time,” Castañeda says.
Serena appears grandfatherly, with a fuzz of gray hair, full cheeks and wire-rimmed glasses. He led County Supervisor Simon Salinas’ successful 1993 campaign for county supervisor, which made Salinas the first Latino elected to the county board in more than a century.
That victory came after Salinas led the charge in the ’80s to get districts drawn in Salinas, rather than holding at-large elections. He ran in 1989, the first district election, and became the first Latino elected to Salinas City Council.
Serena’s become an expert on voting rights laws and pushing for district elections that account for demographics. “Once we went to district elections, all the people who got elected were Latino,” he says.
Simon Salinas beat former Alisal Union school board member Jesse Sanchez in a tough race for supervisor. Then, just getting a Latino in office mattered a great deal – today, to Salinas, it matters less.
“Back then, the Latino middle class was just starting to develop,” he says. “Now you have Latinos running against Latinos, and that’s OK. If you’re truly committed to the community, after an election you’ll come together.”
But that doesn’t always happen. Castañeda and Jose Ibarra, a teacher at Bardin Elementary School, led the charge last year to recall Armenta. (They never collected enough signatures to get a recall on the ballot.)
Part of what riled Castañeda against Armenta was a letter the supervisor wrote to the state board encouraging a takeover. Castañeda says Armenta was motivated to keep his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Armenta, in her job as principal of Alisal Community School.
Castañeda was charged with four felony counts related to falsifying papers in the recall attempt, and ultimately pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges. He still denies wrongdoing, and sees the DA’s decision to go after him at all as selective prosecution, helping to protect the establishment.
In Serena’s view, any disparaging remarks about Castañeda are just part of a perpetual cycle with ties to racism. “Jose just becomes the next person they want to pick on,” he says. “You’re always going to have a few Mexicans from the outside who are going to be against the local guy.”
But some Latino elected officials say the Coalition itself is tearing down ambitious Latinos who don’t walk in lock-step.
“Why is it that this Mexican group of people only goes and attacks the Mexicans? Why aren’t you guys going and attacking Dennis Donohue or Lou Calcagno or Dave Potter?,” says one official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “It’s like gangsters robbing Mexicans. What are you going to get on the East Side of Salinas, 10 bucks? Why aren’t they over on Highway 68? Those people don’t lock their doors anyway.”
The newest establishment obstacle is legal bickering over whether Castañeda can keep his school board seat while serving on City Council. He consulted with an attorney, decided he can legally keep both seats, and views the city’s challenge with suspicion.
“What’s the motive behind all this?” he asks. “It’s really a private matter. In reality, it has nothing to do with City Council.”
For Labor Council director Cesar Lara, Castañeda’s stubbornness on the two-office deal offers validation that he backed the right candidate – Wiebusch. Lara says the Labor Council didn’t back Castañeda because there were “red flag” issues: his effort to recall Armenta and the criminal charges; the district’s sinking so low the state intervened to begin with; and Castañeda’s current decision not to resign his post.
Reflecting on years of dysfunction at the school board, Lara says, “It was very convoluted and board-focused considering the focus of the school board is supposed to be on the students, not on who has control.”
The school naming, which spawned strong opposition from local law enforcement agencies, is just the latest in what Coalition members view as a systematic effort to keep them from being in control.
“There’s always been this effort to try and control the people elected to the East Side,” Serena says. “Who the hell are they to tell us what we can do?”
• • •
On a recent Saturday morning, Castañeda and Councilwoman Kimbley Craig are driving around together in her Acura, touring each other’s districts. Craig’s includes the city’s largest shopping center, which is trying to rebrand itself as a Latino destination (thus drawing away shoppers from the Alisal) and newer strip malls with popular chain restaurants. That district accounts for $30 million of the city’s annual sales tax revenue.
Castañeda’s, by comparison, is mostly residential, with some unassuming single-unit mom and pops, and large bargain stores on main streets, totaling some $5 million in sales tax revenue.
The unlikely pair stops at a Starbucks to talk with a reporter about their goals. They’re swapping ideas and getting to know each other – a sensitive task after Craig endorsed one of Castañeda’s opponents, Josh Kuzmicz, in the November election.
Castañeda tells Craig his primary goal is to fight for improved youth services like extended library hours, and to overcome a stigma against the Alisal.
“And just that whole mentality with the Alisal, connecting with the rest of the city. It’s going to be one of two things: It’s going to either happen or it’s not going to happen,” he says. “My thing is that I’m a very resilient person and so if I get slapped in the face, I’ll turn the other cheek.”
Craig asks, “Who would slap you in the face?”
Castañeda, who tends to answer specific questions with broad platitudes, responds, “In politics, you’re not going to get your way.”
He talks often about his vision for beefed-up libraries, and how he packs a backpack full of snacks and brings his son to the library at CSU Monterey Bay in evenings, and says Salinas should offer late-night hours, seven days a week.
“The other side of it is, we have a parks and rec department that has gone from 80 people to eight,” Craig says.
Castañeda proposes a citizen-led budget, which he thinks would prioritize his goals over, say, police. “I can guarantee the top priorities for them are going to be the libraries, parks and recreation centers,” he tells Craig.
His own priorities are a bit vague: dealing with foreclosures and keeping services for seniors rank high, but he doesn’t have a particular strategy in mind. He’s also talked about eliminating school districts, forming one large urban district for all of Salinas.
Castañeda and Coalition members think their sweeping goals to elevate East Salinas are misunderstood by the establishment, including the media. The group gathered recently at the offices of The Californian, where they planned to air grievances about the newspaper’s coverage of the school naming controversy. (While the Weekly was initially invited to that meeting, members, in the end, asked this reporter to leave.)
But in the newspaper office lobby, Francisco Estrada, Jr., Estrada’s son and Hartnell student body president, offered this explanation for why Castañeda is unpopular in some circles: “Because he’s brown. [To them], this is a gangster meeting right here.”
• • •
Without the jolly laugh, Castañeda makes for a serious Santa Claus. But he dons a foam belly, red suit and bushy white beard wig to distribute candy canes to kids at Cesar Chavez Elementary School on Dec. 14, as students prepared for Christmas break and appeared unaware of the carnage their peers were experiencing in Newtown, Conn.
In between handing out information on a Christmas toy drive and candy, Castañeda says he doesn’t want to talk much about the shooting. Instead, he’s focused on trying to mobilize Coalition supporters to form a grassroots group to focus on water rates, modeled after Peninsula ratepayer advocacy groups.
Castañeda’s also the football coach here, for his son’s sixth-grade team. And being in his son’s classroom is part of what makes him keep running for office, he says, to make East Salinas schools better than when he was a kid: “I said, the only way I’m going to be able to change what I’ve experienced is if I become involved.”
He describes growing up poor, with a single mom earning farmworker wages. When he was in high school, his mom was hospitalized after a car accident, a moment Castañeda describes as pivotal in his life, when he stopped taking things for granted. He started doing better in school. He decided to distance himself from friends in gangs.
“At my age, you turn around and people are already dead or in prison,” he says.
He attributes his mere survival, and rise to power, to his belief in God.
“God’s first, from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to sleep,” he says. “During that two-year State Board trial, I said, ‘OK God, I’m in this.’ At first I didn’t understand it. It was literally faith that kept us going forward.”
Castañeda says he works in landscaping a few days a week, and has also overseen demolition work and food safety. But his day job is nebulous enough that a DA investigator called the Weekly last year to ask how Castañeda supported himself.
The school district pays a $240 monthly stipend and provides health insurance. When asked exactly how he earns a living, Castañeda says, “As long as you put God first, your needs will be provided for… you can live off manna.”
Last month, Castañeda opted out of the small stipend so he could avoid the appearance of self-interest in continuing to serve on both the school board and the council. But even after winning a three-way election with 53 percent of the vote, Castañeda was greeted not with a red carpet but city officials who are pressuring him to step down from the seat he’s held for a decade, and who might take him to court if he doesn’t comply.
“He’s going to be evaluated at a higher standard as an elected official now,” Armenta says of his rival. “It’s not about getting along within just the school district.”
Castañeda’s not in the habit of ingratiating himself just for the sake of creating a collegial atmosphere, but he studies the issues and even examines old meeting agendas for fun. The youngest seated member of City Council is aspiring to be a neighborhood savior, but he can only try if people give him a chance.
Castañeda says his detractors are special interest groups or entrenched politicians who support them and the status quo, and he’s only disliked because he’s direct and willing to challenge the powers that be.
“Either they love us or they hate us,” he says. “There’s nothing in the middle.”