Once there was a young Mexican-American from a poor Texas family who grew up with the dream of doing something to help his people.
When Mario G. Obledo was only 5 years old, his father died, leaving his mother with 12 children to raise. Young Mario thrived, doing well in his studies and eventually working his way through law school. Moving to California, he became the lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund. In this role, he tried and won important cases for his fellow Mexican-Americans.
Soon, Obledo came to the attention who had promised to appoint members of minorities to key positions in state government.
With much fanfare, Brown named of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Obledo as health and welfare secretary, giving him domain over the state's largest agency, with more than 52,000 employees. Obledo was fond of saying that the agency's $11.7 billion annual budget was bigger than that of most nations.
Obledo saw his new position as a chance to do something about his dream He hired Spanish-speaking personnel in his office, saying that it would now be possible for his mother to call him and find someone who spoke her language.
Obledo said he was proud that anyone could pick up a telephone and reach him. He did not realize that this policy would one day menace both his job and his dream.
To demonstrate his commitment, Obledo decorated his office with quotations from his own speeces, quotations designed to show that government should be the servant and not the master of the people. One fo the quotes framed on a wall opposite his desk, said: "We must change government for the better, not let government change us for the worse."
Despite the exhortations, Obledo found many obstacles to his dream. For one thing, Gov. Brown was determined to emulate the tight-fisted public image of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Administrators were ordered to keep a tight rein on expenses despite protests from some legislators that state mental hospitals were going downhill. Recently, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission accused Obledo's agency of costing California $1.5 million a month in federal funds because of the failure of hospitals to meet proper standards.
Obledo had other problems. He lacked administrative experience of any kind, and he found that some of the managers who headed his department had the same deficiency. In the Department of Health, the director described himself as a good doctor and a poor administrator. Others while less candid, gave equally poor adminstration.
Before long, the agency that Obledo thought launch a new era of hope for the poor and friendless was mired in scandal and controversy over pre-paid health plans, nursing home standards and purported violations of Civil Service regulations. Legislators began to complain about his lack of understanding. A joke making the rounds in Sacramento was that Obledo attended a meeting and , holding up three fingers, said he wanted to make two points.
Perhaps the cruelest blows came from some of his own people. Mexican-Americans are severely underrepresented in state government, and Obledo saw himself as a symbol of achievement to his people. He went out of his way to promote this symbolism, and proudly announced an "open door policy" for everyone.
One of the persons who took advantage of this open-door policy was Assemblyman Richard Alatorre of Los Angeles. One day, at Alatorre's request, Obledo met with Rafael (Chispas) Sandoval, who headed a Los Angeles drug rehabilitation program known in Community Concern which had the enunciated goal of helping inmates and ex-convicts. According to 0Oledo's own account, he visited Community Concern and went to a reception in its honor. He also met with Sandoval nd his staff in Obledo's office.
Obledo's open-door policy closed in around him last Feb. 18. That day, a bookkeeper for a state-funded Los Angeles drug rehabilitation program known as Get Going, Inc., had an appointment with state investigators. She was going to tell them about abuses in the program. Ellen Delia never kept the appointment. Her body was found in a shallow ditch in Sacramento with three bullet holes in her head.
After an investigation, police arrested her husband, Michael, the Get Going director, and charged him with the murder. Law enforcement officials said Get Going had become a base of operations for the Mexican Mafia, considered the most murderous and effective of the state's four prison-based gangs. During the first 30 months of the Brown administration these gangs have been blamed for 160 murders, including 41 of 53 killings that have taken place behind prison walls.
Now Obledo's openness had become a political issue. Persons in the Mexican-American community whispered that some of the shadier people who had met with Obledo had used his name afterward to mislead others into thinking they were friends.
All at once the pressure was on in East Los Angeles, the largest Mexican-American community in the United States. After an investigation task force linked Community Concern to half a dozen Mexican Mafia killings, the agency was stripped of its federal and local funding by the Los Angeles City Council. This month the Readers' Digest kept the controversy alive by describing Obledo as a "supporter" of Sandoval, whom the magazine said had "close friends in organized crime, including mobster Jimmy Coppola, an Italian Mafia associate with whom he spent time in prison."
Obledo asked for a retraction. He said he was not a supporter of Sandoval in the sense "that I used my influence to affirmatively assist Mr. Sandoval in any material or financial manner." Instead, said Obledo, he supported "legitimate programs to assist ex-offenders (to) become a good and productive citizens."
In the wake of the article, Obledo found himself under political attack. Los Angeles councilman Arthur Snyder in whose district the gang's infiltrated drug rehabilitation program had operated, said that state support of Get Going represented "the harvest of Obledo's inattention to a serious situation." Persons who knew Obledo found any suggestion that he would knowingly help a criminal enterprise a ludicrous one, but the prevailing view in the legislature was critical.
Obledo is a good, gentle mam who like many Brown appointees lacksss administrative experience and capability." said Democratic Assemblyman Mike Cullen of Long Beach is a typical view. "The result is a disater."
Even those who defended Obledo's record aknowledged that something was wrongng. J. Anthony Kline, who once was associated with Obledo in representing Mexican-American legal clients, and who now is Gov. Brown's legal counsel, said that Obledo's difficulties arose from his open nature.
"Mario overdid it," said Kline. "People got in to see him who couldn't see his secretary. It might have been stupid, but he wanted to be accessible. He would take anyone's call. It was used against him by people who made use of his name. it's his idealism and naivete that got him into trouble."
Obliquely at least, Obledo seemed to recognize this. In an interview he defended his conduct but conceded that his agency "had been deficient in our audit of several programs." He promised this would change.
Whether Obledo will be around to preside over this change, if it comes, remains unclear. Gov. Brown has the habit of quietly discarding political symbols that have lost their utility. Now there is much talk in Sacramennto that a convenient judgeship will be found for Obledo. After three years in office, Obledo. After three years in office, Obledo's dream of doing something for his people is slowly fading before the harsh recognition that good intentions are not enough.