Civil Rights Goes Beyond Ethnic Lines

When the nation’s largest and oldest Mexican American civil rights group selected a new leader recently, the committee that recruited her included the organization’s chairman, a man who is neither a Mexican American nor an immigrant. Meet Joe Stern.

For Stern, the immigrant experience began at home. Growing up in a Cleveland suburb, he remembers his maternal grandfather regaling him with tales about coming to America as a poor Jewish immigrant from Austria and making his way here, despite anti-Semitism and the challenges of scratching out an existence in a new land. Arriving penniless in New York, Stern’s grandfather eventually made his way to Ohio, where he went on to open a successful supermarket chain.

His grandfather’s travails and triumphs helped the young Stern develop a lifelong empathy for immigrants. He decided that one day, he would somehow smooth the rocky road newcomers often face in the United States, a country whose attitude toward immigrants often rises and falls with the vicissitudes of the economy.

Today, 54-year-old Stern is a partner at the blue-chip New York law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. He lives comfortably on the Upper West Side, jets around the globe and runs marathons.

But the abiding love of the underdog and quest for social justice Stern learned at his grandfather’s knee never left him. That’s why he contributes to such civil rights groups as the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Defense Fund. It’s also why he serves as chair of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a civil rights group fighting for educational equality and political advancement for the nation’s 40 million Latinos.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Stern would at first blush seem an unlikely candidate to hold such a prominent position in the nation’s foremost Latino civil rights organization. Although he heads Fried, Frank’s Latin American practice, Stern speaks little Spanish, took only a few courses on Latin American history in college and has no Latino roots.

Still, Stern said the similarities between Jews and Latinos outweigh the differences; both groups prize family, self-improvement and have firsthand experience with the dislocations of immigration. For Stern, Judaism’s emphasis on justice and making the world a better place have given him a strong foundation for his advocacy work.

"I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a sensitivity to the most recent wave of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Latin America, but I think our immigrant experience may help," he said. "Again, I don’t think you have to be Jewish to have a passion for civil rights, but it doesn’t hurt. MALDEF is one of the foremost civil rights organizations in the country, and I do really believe that when anyone’s rights are denied, we’re all in danger."

Stern first got involved with MALDEF through his activist law firm, which has a longstanding relationship with the group. A director since 1991, he has worked overtime lately, playing an important role in the recent hiring of Ann Marie Tallman as MALDEF’s president and general counsel.

"Joe’s really stepped up and done right for this institution," MALDEF board member Frank Quevedo said of Stern’s efforts in finding a new leader, who beat out 80 candidates and is expected to attract more corporate support.

Tallman’s appointment represents MALDEF’s break with the "last ties to any notion of ethnic nationalism and ethnic provincialism," said Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. Although the group has long taken money from businesses and foundations, Tallman, an ethnically mixed attorney who speaks almost no Spanish and hails from the corporate world, symbolizes a more mainstream MALDEF, he added.

Stern, in his 13 years with the organization, has held a variety of positions, including heading the organization’s fiscal and fund-raising committee. He became chair in 2002, just as the group opened a new office in North Carolina to serve the northeast. Stern’s charm, intellect and ability to bring people together have earned him the respect of his MALDEF colleagues, board member and Washington attorney Thomas Reston said.

"It’s quite evident from anyone who talks to him that his is not a rote, by-the-numbers interest in civil rights. It’s a deeply felt passion and a deep commitment to fairness," said Reston, who successfully litigated on behalf of MALDEF in the mid-1970s to expand the Voting Rights Act to cover parts of California and the Southwest.

Stern’s commitment to Latinos and civil rights is matched only by his newfound dedication to Judaism. Bothered by his ignorance about his own religion, he began taking classes at a local synagogue and became fascinated with the Bible and its meaning. At the age of 49, Stern had a bar mitzvah.

"I figured I should at least do what a 13-year-old does, and I’m very happy I did. It was a public way of embracing being Jewish," he said. "Judaism has made me a richer, deeper person."

Latino Group Sues Over District Lines

If the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) gets its way, state Senate elections scheduled for March will be postponed until June, and California’s newly redrawn congressional districts will be re-redrawn.

MALDEF has filed a lawsuit challenging congressional and state Senate districts in the San Fernando Valley, Southeast Los Angeles and San Diego. The suit claims that lawmakers, in their attempt to create "safe" districts for incumbents, have divided Latino communities to prevent them from joining to elect new Latino representatives. According to MALDEF, this division of communities violates provisions of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which guarantees the right to representation for "communities of interest."

The congressional districts challenged in the lawsuit are held by two Jewish representatives, Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista). Maria Blanco, an attorney for MALDEF, says, "I think this has been kept at the level of the Latino voters. Our focus isn’t so much about who the incumbent is."

Some in the Jewish community see it differently.

"What MALDEF is essentially trying to do is remove two Jewish members of Congress and replace them with two Latino members. They’re trying to shove all the Latinos in an area into one district so a Latino can win the primary. Berman’s been a champion of Latino legislation for 30 years. They want to replace him with someone whose last name sounds like theirs," says Jewish community activist Howard Welinsky.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum also takes issue with the claims underlying the redistricting challenge. "The district that Howard Berman serves is a very mixed area. He has shown himself to be an effective representative of a mixed community. The MALDEF lawsuit claims Berman is not an effective legislator because he’s not Latino. I don’t think a Jew can be represented only by a Jew, or that a Latino can be represented only by a Latino."

Dissenting voices in the Jewish community are careful, however, to distinguish between the MALDEF lawsuit and Latino leaders in general. As Welinsky says, "We can’t paint this with one brush; virtually every Latino member of the Legislature voted for the reapportionment. Current Latino elected officials have been very supportive of Israel, as have African American elected officials, for that matter."

Gov. Gray Davis and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg are among the state officials named in the suit, because of their roles in passing the new district lines. MALDEF is not challenging the Assembly districts, which Hertzberg attributes to "the meticulous and open procedures we used throughout the process" of redistricting. Unlike the state Senate and the congressional delegation, California’s Assembly did not hire political consultant Michael Berman (brother of Rep. Howard Berman) to craft the new districts.

Amadis Velez says the lawsuit has nothing to do with potential rivalries between Jewish and Latino candidates. Asked about the goals behind the challenge to Berman’s Valley district, MALDEF’s redistricting coordinator answers with a question: "Let me ask you, do you see this conflict between Jews and Latinos? Because I really don’t see a conflict. With few exceptions, I think Jews and Latinos have worked pretty steadily toward common goals.

"If you look at the district, it doesn’t speak to the needs of Jews or Latinos. It speaks to the needs of incumbents. It’s just not a matter of the ethnicity of the representatives."

MALDEF has asked that state Senate elections scheduled for March 2002 be postponed until June to allow potential candidates time to campaign, and that a panel of judges redraw the districts to include undivided Latino communities. The Central District Federal court in Los Angeles scheduled a temporary restraining-order hearing for Wednesday, Oct. 31, to determine if elections should be postponed. And if MALDEF loses? "There’s always an appeals process," says Velez.

Though all involved are anxious to avoid the appearance of Jewish and Latino conflict, the issues raised by MALDEF’s lawsuit hit a sore spot for some. "For a minority that’s always been a minority, to say you shouldn’t bother to serve your community unless you represent an area where you’re in the majority basically says Jews should get out of politics," Greenbaum says.