Frank Shaffer-Corona, at-large member of the D.C. Board of Education, moved restlessly around his Adams-Morgan apartment. Posters on the walls, a pin in the lapel of his blue denim suit, and a souvenir bag of sand from the Bay of Pigs commemorated his controversial trip to Cuba earlier this month.
He was busy packing his bags for yet another trip - this one to Mexico - and seemed unperturbed by news that some Latinos in Washington are calling for his resignation. He seemed bothered not in the least by some of the accusations that have been leveled against him since his Havana sojourn made headlines.
"If anybody comes to me and accuses me of being a socialist or a Marxist," he said matter-of-factly, "they're just as crazy as anyone who accuses me of selling cocaine or prostitution."
Rather, said Shaffer-Corona, he is "a populist," a registered Democrat and the Washington representative of La Raza Unida, a Texas-based Chicano political party. He supports himself, with some difficulty, as a free-lance writer.
Shaffer-Corona does think, however, that he represents something more than the 12,000 or so people who elected him to the school board last year, and partly as a result he has grown accustomed to controversy. Some say he has cultivated it.
Identifying himself as "Washington's only elected Latino 'state-wide' officials" he has written letters on school board stationary to the vice president, secretary of state and attorney general of the United States, criticizing their policies toward Mexico and immigrants.
He has met with Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, conferred with top Mexican cabinet officials about educational and cultural exchanges, and addressed the tribunal "Youth Accuses Imperialism" at the 11th World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana.
He has repeatedly denounced what he believes is the pervasive influence of the Central Intelligence Agency on American politics and what he says is a conspiracy of the multinational corporations against all minorities and the peoples of Latin America.
On one level, Shaffer-Corona says, he represents those peoples. The Cubans, the Mexicans, the Chicanos of the Southwest, "the Indo-Hispano-African peoples of this hemisphere" - in all, about 375 million - are part of his constituency as he sees it.
Meanwhile, however, what might have been though of as his constituency in the District of Columbia has begun to rebel against him or - at least - to avoid him.
"I think he's crazy," said Latino community organizer Marcela Davila. "Publicly he's interfering with our programs. It's a disgrace that you have a person like him in the board of education."
"I'm outraged by Frank Shaffer-Corona," said at-large City Council candidate Hector Rodriguez, the nominee of the Latino Caucus, who has demanded Shaffer-Corona's resignationn. Rodriguez said he has consistently suffered during his campaign from being confused with Shaffer-Corona, who he said, "has not only damaged the image of the Latino community, he has also misrepresented the larger community."
Betty Diaz, a Latino activist who has been organizing the tenants of 1841 Columbia Rd. NW, where Shaffer-Corona lives, had a somewhat different perspective. She said she likes him and many of his ideas. "He's good people, don't get me wrong. But he doesn't somehow grasp something about the community."
Diaz said she asked him not to attend any more of the tenants' meetings, where there are a number of senior citizens. "He scares my little old ladies. He makes such strong statements. He means well and I know what he's trying to do, but he attacks it, so roughly, from the gut, you know."
Even during his campaign, Shaffer-Corona did not have significant backing from Washington's Hispanic community though may of those who voted for him did so because, as one young professional in Adams-Morgan said, they "thought it would be a good thing to have more Latinos in the city government."
He won by placing second to school board member Barbara Lett Simmons, defeating candidates from the Socialist Workers Party and the U.S. Labor Party.
"Most of the Latinos did not back him," recalled Charles Howard, Shaffer-Corona's former campaign treasurer. "The people in the campaign were motly friends of his who had spent time with him at Columbia Station (a neighborhood bar and restaurant) who did not have much else to do at the time."
"He could have gone far," Howard said. "The school board thing would have been just a first step, but he's made a lot of enemies. You know he was described to me once, and it may be right, as the kind of person who strives for success on the surface, but really strives for destruction."
"I do have a following in this city, contrary to what anyone says but it's more black than Latino," Shaffer-Corona told a reporter last week before his trip to Mexico (paid for, he said, by friend in Tennessee).
Shaffer-Corona said he also demonstrated substantial Hispanic support for himself at the hearing last spring for a city council bill that would have made it a crime to hire illegal immigrants. Hundreds of people from the local Latino community turned out in opposition. "As soon as I came up with a popular base within the Latino community with the Coalition on Migration and Full Employment the established Latino politicians had to counter that. It's not even the whole envy trip. A lot of them just don't understand where I'm coming from."
Where is Frank Shaffer-Corona "coming from"?
He was born at West Point, N.Y., in 1943. His father, Lyman Huntley Shaffer, descendant of a Hessian mercenary who stayed in America after the revolution, was a graduate of the military academy and was called back to West Point to teach Spanish during the war.
"Somewhere early in his life, before he ever went there, he fell in love with things Mexican," his son says. In 1939, while working as a mining engineer there, he married Maria Luisa Corona in Mexico City.
Frank grew up in Superior, Wis., and Edina, Minn. ("sort of the Chevy Chase of Minnesapolis"). The family spent its summers in Mexico, where Frank learned that by Spanish custom his last name should include his mother's name, Corona. He did not learn much,however, about discrimination or about the problems that have come to preoccupy him now.
"Most people in this country," said Shaffer-Corona, "are exposed to its racism between the ages of 4 and 8. I didn't experience it until I was 18, in the service. It was quite a shock."
He was stationed as a private with the Army in Germany ("Keep in mind I'm th lowest-ranking Shaffer in all history"), and while he was there he worked with personnel records. He saw blacks passed over again and again for promotion, he says. Most of his friends were black, he said, and he began editing a unit newspaper, speaking out fro civil rights.
"I can remember by the summer of 1963, when my father died, having to decide on being black or being white. I chose to be black. I never lived the Chicano experience until I decided to be black."
Shaffer-Corona enrolled at Howard University in 1965. But lacking money, he left college after about a year, eventually becoming a collection manager for a finance company ("Philosophically I hated the job - 36 per cent interest - but I met people all over this town"), and insurance agent, and then, in 1972, an entrepreneur selling chimney cleaning devices to restaurants. That last venture, he said wound up costing him $80,000.
By 1975 he was supporting himself serving summonses for his divorce lawyer (his marriage, which he would not talk about, lasted three years), and playing backgammon at Columbia Station.
It was at Columbia Station that Shaffer-Corona first contemplated getting actively involved with politics. In January of 1976 Shaffer-Corona went on a rally for presidential candidate Fred Harris, and that tipped the scales. "Fred really turned me on. I got talked into running as a delegate for him. That led to my voter registration activities, and so on."
As chairman of Latinos Unidos Para Votas he led the fight for bilingual voter registration and ballots in 1976.
By then he was working regularly for the National Center for Community Action "Reporter." Though he still contributes articles, he was fired from that position in 1977, shortly before he ran for the Board of Education. During the campaign, but not since, he says, he was collecting unemployment benefits.
Since he has been on the school board, Shaffer-Corona said he has "made a judicious point of staying away from curriculum because I'm too controversial," but has fought to keep many neighborhood schools from being closed and language teachers from being fired, and has spent most of his energy dealing with the day-to-day issues that confront the board. "The national stuff I do on my own time, so to speak."
The assessment of his performance depends on whom you talk to. School Board President Conrad P. Smith has led the criticism of Shaffer-Corona both for using school board stationery to write to high federal officials and for trying to charge his trip to Cuba against his school board travel allowance, an issue that has yet to be decided.
At-large member Barbara Lett Simmons, on the other hand, decried what she called a "let's get him" attitude on the part of some of her colleagues. "I don't think his performance has been greatly different than any new member of the board. He has better attendance than some of those people who are committee chairmen. People don't know how much time he has spent negotiating for better programs for the District's schools, how hard he has worked."
Simmons said she had one program, especially, in mind, but did not want to say what it was. "I'm afraid," she said, echoing what has become a recurrent theme among his supporters, "if we attach his name to it, it'll be torpedoed for the wrong reasons."