What's in a Name?

A petition-signature request loses something in the translation.

In any language, the battle for Colorado schoolchildren's right to bilingual education is heating up.

Late one recent morning, Francine Haver dropped by her local King Soopers. As she walked up to the Belcaro Shopping Center store, she remembers, a man in his late twenties asked her to sign a petition to put the English for the Children of Colorado initiative on the ballot. When she declined, he pursued her, ultimately offering $10 for her signature.

"I certainly know that you're not allowed to pay people to sign petitions," she says. "He was perfectly legitimate in the way that he approached me. He wasn't kidding; there was no smile or humor in his voice. He sounded kind of desperate."

English for the Children, which calls for an amendment to the Colorado Constitution to outlaw bilingual education in favor of immersion-only English-language training, is largely funded by Ron Unz, a millionaire businessman who's successfully pushed similar measures in other states, including Arizona and his own California, and has given $130,000 to the Colorado cause. Unz finds the King Soopers story hard to believe.

"That seems very strange," he says. "I obviously wasn't there, but I'd be extremely skeptical about that story."

Rita Montero, a former Denver school-board member who's Colorado chairwoman for the English for the Children campaign, hadn't heard Haver's story, either, but agrees with Unz that it sounds unlikely. "These people are only getting something like $1.25 per signature, so why would they offer somebody $10?" she says. "I don't know who would be stupid enough to do that. I think this is a rumor or some lie to try and create bad publicity for us."

And Unz can do that all on his own.

Last Thursday, local education officials gathered to protest Unz's recent characterization of U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, who has criticized the initiative, as "a black former football coach, widely regarded as the dimmest member of the Bush Cabinet."

"We thought his comments were insensitive, and they don't reflect how anyone here feels," says Montero. "But we do see eye-to-eye on the English initiative."

Unz, meanwhile, has no problem defending his position, pointing out in an e-mail that "far harsher characterizations of Paige had routinely appeared in America's elite national media, from which my own impressions had derived."

Allegations of improper petitioning might be tougher to counter. English for the Children has until August 5 to gather the 80,571 signatures needed to place the controversial proposal on the November ballot. "The reaction that the people in the signature-gathering process have been getting is very positive," Montero says. "Ninety percent of people who have been asked to sign the petition, do it. Some even run up and ask us if they can sign."

And then there's Haver. English Plus, the Colorado group opposing the Unz campaign, plans to investigate her claim. "If it's true, we would want to pursue legal prosecution," says Steve Welchert, spokesman for English Plus. "This is not an issue of keeping signatures off the ballot; this is an issue that could send someone to jail. The company ought to be able to backtrack and find out which exact employee was there. If she [Haver] is willing to sign an affidavit, the legal wheels could begin turning."

But both Unz and Montero say they foresee no problems with their petitions. "Our opponents are very venomous people; they filed a lot of frivolous legal challenges, so we really had to scramble to collect six months' worth of signatures in six weeks," Unz says. "But we are now well above 80,000. We've got tens of thousands of extra assurance signatures. We're even going to be done early."

Welchert expresses doubt about that, too. "When you're struggling, you do silly things," he says.

Haver, who owns an art consulting business in Denver, stands by her story. "As soon as he offered me the $10, I said to myself, 'This is not the right thing to do,'" she remembers. "I'm just a taxpayer. It was definitely an official electoral petition."

And for this particular petition, the price would never be right. "I said, 'No, even if you offered $1 million, I wouldn't sign it,'" she says. "I know my opinion on this."

 
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