Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"This weekend," says Mario Obledo, looking out at the 200 faces turned toward him in the Latin American Room of the Capital Hilton . . . "This weekend, we will have a dinner for 5,000 people in Los Angeles." He pronounces the name in the Spanish style, the "g" sounding more like an "h." All the people in the room are friends of Mario (nobody calls him "Mr. Obledo," though he must be one of the more powerful men in the United States), but he has a lot more friends in California than in Washington, D.C.
"Mario and I spoke here in 1971, during the Nixon administration," recalls a former associate, "and we had a tremendous turnout - 45 Chicanos." That was before Mario was appointed secretary of California's Health and Welfare Agency, proprietor this year of a $14-billion budget, which is a larger than the total budget of 47 states and most foreign countries.
The Washington reception is one of a series being given for Mario Obledo by Chicanos - a demonstration of "solidarity," explains Al Perez, director of the D.C. office of the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), co-sponser of the event with seven other organizations.
Obledo has been criticized in the Reader's Digest, in the California legislature, in the Los Angeles City Council (but only by those who do not pronounce the city's name in the Spanish style). There have been frontal assaults on some of the 500 programs sponsored by his massive agency, which range from medical care to food stamps - particularly a drug-rehabilitation program in which there has been alleged lawbreaking.
People who call the city "Los Anheles" see the situation differently, and there was a whole roomful of them at the Hilton willing to give the press their point of view. "When your budget is $14 billion, you control a lot of patronage," one of them explained. "Mario has put blacks and Chicanos in positions where blacks and Chicanos have not been before."
The various meetings being held in California are designed to show the state's politicians how much strength there is behind this appointed official - a former civil rights worker who hopes to get back to it after a brief tour in the bureaucracy.
At least one person at the party Monday night called Obledo "governor" while shaking his hand, but Obledo didn't seem to notice. One of his friends and admirers, Ada Pena, regional vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was not sure about elective office but thought he might be the next Chicano cabinet officer - perhaps attorney general.
Obledo doubts and claims to have no political ambitious: "I'm really not a politician," he said.