The Great Brown Hope

Why the GOP loves new state schools chief Jaime Molera.

The political leadership of Arizona is pretty much a whitewash.

Gov. Jane Dee Hull? White. Attorney General Janet Napolitano? White. Secretary of State Betsey Bayless? White. State Treasurer Carol Springer? White. Corporation Commissioners Bill Mundell, Mark Spitzer and Jim Irvin? White, white and white. State Mining Inspector Doug Martin? You've never heard of him, but he's white.

The congressional delegation is pretty pale, too. Of the eight members of the U.S. Congress, all but Ed Pastor are as white--and, incidentally, Republican--as they come (particularly that J.D. Hayworth).

But there is one Republican at the state level with a brown face: Jaime Molera, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Molera didn't actually win office; he was appointed by Hull earlier this year when Republican Lisa Graham Keegan (go ahead, guess the color of her skin) bailed out of office to take a job at a D.C. education think tank.

Although he's only 33 years old, Molera has been on the forefront of educational reform in Arizona, from AIMS exam to charter schools. As the chief education lobbyist for Keegan and later Hull, he handled the details of transforming policy into legislative reality.

Since moving into public office, Molera has become a darling of the GOP leadership.

"I think the world of him," says Robert Fannin, the Phoenix lawyer/lobbyist now serving as chairman of the Arizona Republican Party. "I think he's a great guy, very bright, energetic, young. I like him a lot and think he's doing a great job."

It's no secret the Republican Party is eager to woo the rapidly expanding Hispanic population. Since his appointment seven months ago, Molera has already been to the--ahem--White House for a huddle with George W. Bush, who has been courting Hispanics since his gubernatorial days in Texas.

Bush's efforts at outreach are obvious. He spices speeches with dashes of español. His first big international confab was with Mexican President Vicente Fox. Two high-ranking administration members--Secretary of Housing Mel Martinez and White House counsel Al Gonzales--are Hispanic. GOP web pages are now in Spanish as well as English.

Exit polls estimate Bush grabbed about 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 election. That's the highest percentage for a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan spiked at 44 percent in 1984, but Bush is eager to improve on those numbers in 2004.

Likewise, as the percentage of Hispanic population grows in the United States, the GOP is increasingly determined to grab a larger share. Matthew Dowd, a senior advisor to the Republican National Committee who worked as chief pollster for the Bush-Cheney campaign, calls it the Latin Swing, likening Hispanic voters to soccer moms--"the most sought-after voter bloc in the coming decade."

Dowd notes that as Hispanics become more affluent, they're more likely to vote Republican. In a recent article in the Weekly Standard, he points out the Bush grabbed only 31 percent of vote from Latinos with an income of less than $30,000, but 46 percent from Latinos with an income above $75,000.

In Arizona, Republican Party officials are just as eager to grab more Hispanic support. Fannin says the GOP has a group that meets weekly to develop ways to reach out to Hispanic voters.

"There's no question in my mind that it's very important to have an organized program to solicit the vote of the Hispanic voters, not only in the context of this election, but to have a five- to 10-year program," Fannin says. "I think Hispanics share the same values as Republicans do and it's important to get that word out."

"It's a priority for the party," says Margaret Kenski, a GOP pollster here in Tucson. "If you look at some of the underlying demographics of change in the state, I think you understand that there's some excellent opportunities, because so many Hispanic families have been here for quite some time, they're small-business people, and I believe the party feels their policy interests are quite closely aligned to those in the Republican party."

Kenski draws an analogy between Hispanic and Irish voters. When Irish immigrants first came to the United States, they stuck together as Democrats, but as they've assimilated and become more successful, they've become a swing vote between the parties.

But GOP officials here have struggled to recruit minority candidates, particularly compared to states like Texas and New Mexico, where Hispanic Republicans are more successful at the ballot box. Kenski suggests the GOP has trouble attracting young minority candidates because the best and brightest have better options. "Those who have Hispanic or African-American background, unless they have a real calling to the public service, can make so much more money in the private sector," Kenski says. "If you're doing real well and this is something new for you and your family, why jeopardize that with going to the legislature?"

SO IT'S EASY TO SEE why the GOP is so happy to have Molera in the ranks. A political animal since his early days, Molera served as student body president in high school and worked for then-Congressman Jon Kyl while he was in college at Arizona State. He has a great pull-yourself-up-from-the-bootstraps political bio, growing up on the Arizona side of the border town of Nogales, the youngest of four brothers raised by his mother after his father split from the family when Molera was just 4 years old. His mother, Irene Molera, worked for the Nogales Unified School District and wouldn't accept assistance from welfare programs.

Molera has no shortage of challenges in the months ahead. He's now atop an educational system that ranks near the bottom in many national measures, from drop-out rates to test scores to per-pupil funding.

The biggest decision facing his administration from day one has been the AIMS exam. The Arizona Instrument for Measuring Standards has been a mess since its creation by the state legislature in the late 1990s. Earlier this year, Molera voted with the state board of education to delay the deadline requiring high-school graduates to pass AIMS back to 2005. Had the original deadline of 2002 stuck, there may have been a lot of students without diplomas next year; In the most recent AIMS round, only 26 percent of the high-school seniors statewide who took the writing test passed. (Students who had passed as sophomores or juniors did not have to take the test.)

Minority students have a particularly hard time with AIMS exam. Hispanics, blacks and Native Americans almost never came within 70 percent of the pass rates for white students at any grade level in 2000.

That statistic spurred attorney Tom Berning, litigation director for the Tucson-based William Morris Institute for Justice, to file a formal complaint last May with the U.S. Education Department alleging that the lower test scores of black, Native American and Hispanic students amount to a de facto case of discrimination.

Last week, Berning filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Prop 203, the citizen initiative that banned most bilingual education in Arizona schools last year. Financed primarily by entrepreneur Ron Unz, who paid the costs of a similar effort in California two years earlier, the proposition passed with 63 percent of the vote.

Berning maintains the law is unconstitutional because it fails to provide due process for children and parents who seek to obtain a waiver to allow students to remain within the bilingual system.

But the hottest legal issue facing Molera and the state legislature is a federal suit filed almost a decade ago on behalf of Nogales schoolchildren by Tim Hogan of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, who alleged that the state is violating the Equal Education Opportunities Act by not spending enough money teaching kids who aren't yet proficient in English.

U.S. District Judge Alfredo Marquez ruled in favor of Hogan and, when the legislature did nothing to resolve the issue, ordered lawmakers to fix the problem by the end of the current special session or January 31, whichever comes first. If lawmakers fail to find a solution, Hogan has said he'll ask Marquez to cut off hundreds of millions of federal dollars flowing to Arizona--not just education aid, but funding for transportation and other programs fed by federal money.

Wrangling over the case has been a major impediment to resolving the budget-balancing special session that has been underway for five weeks.

Last week in the GOP caucus, one Republican who was sitting in the meeting remembers listening to the posturing among conservatives bitching about judicial activism, when Rep. Russell Pierce of Mesa launched into a tirade blaming the whole mess on an "activist Hispanic judge."

With that kind of rhetoric, it's clear that some Republicans haven't yet received the memo on Hispanic outreach.