En route by taxi from the school board building to Columbia Road, Frank Shaffer-Corona, at-large school board member, Washington's only elected Hispanic, man-about-the-world, says he is in the eye of the storm.
Now some would argue that he is the storm, but before we get to that, let's listen to Frank Shaffer-Corona.
"I don't know how to explain this without sounding crazy," he says, peering intently out the front window of the taxi. "There's a spiritual, psychic communication you have when you get involved with people.At one point, according to the State Department, I was the only one talking with all three parties [to the Iranian crisis]. I was the only person engaged in meaningful, respectful dialogue with the students, the Iranian government and the American government.
"Things have calmed down in Iran,"he says. "I don't want to take credit -- but some of it is my doing. We're still not out of the woods yet."
Now, in a long line of sundry diplomats-of-the-moment who have made their way to Tehran in hopes of solving the Iranian crisis, comes perhaps the most improbable one -- Frank Shaffer-Corona, 36, removed just one step above private citizenhood by virtue of his title as D.C. school board member.
"Who's better qualified to talk with a group of students than someone who's in education?" Shaffer-Corona asks.
In the name of education and all the "Indo-Hispano-African peoples of this hemisphere" whom he once said he represents, he was sallied forth into the world of diplomacy.
He wrote letters on school board stationery to the vice president, secretary of state and attorney general of the U.S., critizing their policies toward Mexico and immigrants.
He made a two-week trip to Havana in the summer of 1978 for the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students and tried to get the school board to pick up the bill, explaining it was "an educational conference."
(He was successful, according to one former D.C. finance official, because he was technically within school board travel regulations. Later, the regulations were tightened up.)
In January, he made $300 worth of phone calls from his office to the millitant students holding the American hostages, causing an uproar among his school board colleagues. (The State Department eventually cut off his direct line to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.)
And on Friday, he announced at a press conference that he was going to Tehran -- by way of Beirut, Lebanon -- in an attempt to free the hostages. He would be accompanied, for the two-to-three week trip, by delegates from the Chicano Raza Unida (Race United) Party. The plane ticket to Beirut comes courtesy of the Palestinian chapter of the Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, he said. In Lebanon, Shaffer-Corona and the Raza Unida delegates said Friday, they will learn about oppression "in an occupied land."
When he returns he hopes to fight the owners of his Columbia Road apartment building who are trying to turn it into a condominum. "That's my next local battle," he said with a smile as he bounded into the elevator of his building. "I could have fun with that."
As he bustles around the apartment, preparing for his afternoon departure, he talks about all his projects. "I like to think of myself as something of a Renaissance man," he says, grabbing a trash bag and taking it out to dump. HOT LINE
Shaffer-Corona doesn't understand all the brouhaha over phone calls to Tehran.
"Why is that such an issue?" he asked a reporter at his press conference. "Who pays for phone calls? Who pays for postage stamps?" He sounded mildly annoyed, but he didn't look it -- instead, he looked like a man thrust into the limelight, confidently handling center stage.
"Nobody has asked anything else about anything." he said. "Not 'what was said?' Not 'what else have you done?' I made two trips to New York in January." Both of those were related to the Iranian situation, he said. "I took both trips on my own money. And of course I've taken countless taxis. Sometimes I spend $10 a day on taxis. I visit schools, I go to the Iranian embassy.
Iran, he said, "is a school board matter. The price of oil has gone up due to the instability of the situation. We have the same appropriation for oil. The schools will be colder and the buses will run less."
When it was suggested that solving the Iranian crisis would not prevent the price of oil from rising, he responded: "We have to wake people up to the fact that they alone can do something about (the price of oil). They must decide. What, I don't say I know . . ."
He decided in January to make contact with the students holding the Americans hostage. He talked to various Moslem groups and Iranian student groups.
"Then I thought to myself, why don't I do what I do best? Using the telephone, I used to sell insurance and I used to work for a small loan company in Maryland. So I picked up the phone one night -- at home -- and tried to find out how to call Tehran."
Shaffer-Corona said he never asked the board for permission to make phone calls to Tehran. "It was within my parameters as an individual member of the board."
He was referred to the State Department's Iran working group, and he told them his theory of why the Iranian crisis had not been settled. "The U.S. was playing chess with the folks (the Iranians)," he said. "Chess is a game of hierarchy and warfare. The Iranians were playing backgammon. The working group bought it."
The State Department allowed Shaffer-Corona a direct phone line because "he was concerned about members of his race who were hostages," according to one spokesman. (There are two Mexican-American hostages.) "We found his reasons to be solid. . . Then things got out of hand."
Shaffer-Corona, who said he talked with one student "who would only give initials" over the phone of 18 phone calls, asserted that he was at the point of being invited over to visit when the State Department "cut it off."
"They said 'this thing is very sensitive,'" said Shaffer-Corona. His voice grew louder and his brow furrowed. "I thought 'hey, fools, it was more sensitive when I first got in.' The State Department and the White House just can't fathom the idea of this crazy, radical little Mexican school board member coming up with the solution.
"I made it a point to rap with all those people" on the State Department's Iran desk, he said. "I tried to raise their consciousness. I don't think they realize the effect of their foreign policy on us. The white man thinks he can run around the world imposing his beliefs, his policy, on others.'" Vis-a-Vis Visas Shaffer-Corona walked into his press-conference Friday morning like a political candidate, shaking hands with reporters -- some in the black power handshake style. Calmly, he took his place at the head table among the Raza Unida delegates, his brown eyes reflecting his quiet self-confidence. His skin is smooth light brown and he sports a bushy mustache. When he is not smoking his pipe, he smokes cigarettes.
He ticked off the names of the people his group would be meeting with in Tehran -- President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, the students, Ayatollah Khomeini's son. All that, he said, later had been set up through the Iranian Embassy here. Officials at the Iranian Embassy later in the day told a reporter they could not confirm that.
"What we haven't buttoned down specifically are the visas," said Shaffer-Corona matter-of-factly. "We'll do that in Beirut."
"We're not just seeking release of our (Mexican-American) hostages," Shaffer-Corona said. "We're initiating a process by which all the hostages might be freed. I don't want that misunderstood."
One reporter: "How would you answer those parents who want to know why you're nothere during the budget crisis?"
Shaffer-Corona: "I'm not sure there is a crisis. There's a lot of noise coming out of city hall. Schools are operating under their budget. The crisis is on the mayoral level."
Another reporter: "Do you expect to be reelected?"
Shaffer-Corona: "Uhhh, I think that's another agenda item, further down the road. . ." Staff Hassles
His office walls are a salute to the best-known of causes and revolution ary men. You name it, he's got a poster for it: Nicaragua, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, the Palestine Liberation Organization.
His exploits have made him infamous in the District Building, and his very loyal staff, some of whom he has rescued recently from unemployment, must suffer the consequences. "Do we get hassled?" asked Jerri Williams, a temporary research assistant, eyes wide.
"When people began hearing about the phone calls, they stopped talking to us," said Rene Dubose, a research assistant on Shaffer-Coroner's staff of four. Other staffers are gruff with them, they said. The Xerox machine room was suddenly closed off, they said, and now any staffer wanting to use it gets interrogated first.
"People warn us about Frank," said Dubose."Well, Vince Reed [the schools superintendent] warned me. He said, 'watch Shaffer-Corona," and Frank has done nothing."
"It all boils down to Frank seeing issues more broadly," said Dubose. "You know what they're arguing about up there [in the school board conference room]? Swing chairs. They say the chairs are too low. They get there early so they can get the best chairs."
"The best way to be effective," said Shaffer-Corona, "is to let people think you're crazy." Spanish Connection
He grew up mainly in Superior, Wis., his mother Mexican-born and his father Iowan-born, a lieutenant in the army. His father was a West Point graduate, an engineer and a Spanish teacher at West Point. "We were very comfortable -- the upper fringes of middle class," he said. His father was descended from a Hessian who came here to flight for the British in the Revolutionary War.
His mother came from a prominent family in Mexico, Shaffer-Corona said, and when they went back to visit, the whole family would go off a juant to Cuernavaca or Acapulco.
It was in Mexico that he added his mother's family name, Corona, to Shaffer, in the Latin tradition.
He says that his great grandfather's uncle was an ambassador to Spain and Portugal who "developed good relations with the queen of Spain" and "was the natural father of Alfonso the 13th, the last king of Spain before Franco."
"The king of Spain is my cousin," he said. "Wait until I take that trip," he said, laughing. Then, growing more serious, he added, "This is something that couldn't be admitted by the royal family, and I wouldn't ask."
In the army he was stationed in Germany, where he worked with personnel records. During that time, he says, he saw blacks passed over repeatedly for promotion. Many of his friends were black, and around that time, he said he developed his civil-rights consciousness.
He enrolled in Howard University in 1965, but lacking funds, he left school after about a year and pursued a variety of jobs -- finance company collection manager, insurance agent, a salesman of chimney cleaning devices for restaurants. A January 1976 rally for Fred Harris, the presidential candidate, turned him on to politics. He was elected to the school board in 1977.
"I had had the typical, good old middle-American life. If I can learn the lessons, so can the rest of middle America.
"Today I come from the tradition of resisting the plantation," he said. Tehran Bound
"There are people who give him a 'right on,' says Bey Jackson, who managed Shaffer-Corona's campaign for the school board. "They see someone casting stones at the powers that be."
In the drugstore near his apartment building, the cashier asks Shaffer-Corona about his trip and a customer wishes him good luck.
"You see," he says."The community is supportive."
Several doors down, the merchant of a small clothing shop, whom Shaffer-Corona jovially speaks to in Spanish, refuses to cash personal checks for a couple hundred dollars he needs in a hurry before his trip. He doesn't have the money today, the merchant explains.
Shaffer-Corona says he has raised $900 from the community, some of which will be used for the trip to Tehran from Beirut. "Well, it is a piggyback in a way," he says of the stop in Beirut. "But when you have to get the money [to go to Tehran], you have to get the money." Besides, he adds, "we anticipate the Palestinians will facilitate our entry into Iran."
He smiles and shrugs. "If Yasser Arafat picks up the phone to the ayatollah and says, 'yeh, I'm sending some . . . friends over, receive them well.'"
Shaffer-Corona grabs his suitcase and heads for the door. He has to get to the bank before he can get to Arafat and the ayatollah.