Election 2012

César Chávez house, union HQ named national monument

César Chávez house, union  HQ named national monument

President Barack Obama added an unusual jewel to the crown of National Park Service properties in declaring the home of Cesar Chavez and the headquarters of the labor movement he founded—the United Farm Workers—as a national monument.

Operated by the privately funded Chavez Foundation, more than 100 acres of the property in Keene, Calif. known as Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz, Our Lady Queen of Peace, was turned over to the federal government this week for future operations to be paid for with tax dollars.

“La Paz joins a long line of national monuments—stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon—that tell the story of who we are as Americans,” Obama said in announcing the presidential declaration.

“It’s a story of natural wonders and modern marvels; of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it’s also a story of people who have always been willing to devote their lives to making this country a little more just and a little more free,” said Obama, who was greeted at the sprawling estate with chants of “four more years!”

Chavez organized migrant farm workers and founded the union in the 1960s, and led the infamous California grape boycott that brought national attention to striking workers.

The donated property will include the visitor’s center, the legal aid offices for the union, conference center where union activists are trained, Chavez’s gravesite and home where his wife Helen still lives.

The presidential proclamation said the union national headquarters “remains the symbol of the movement’s most significant achievements and its expanding horizons.”

“Cesar Chavez is one of the most revered civil rights leaders in the history of the United States,” said Obama’s proclamation that compared the union organizer to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi.

Obama used the Antiquities Act to add the property to the inventory of the Interior Department. An agency official in Washington referred questions to a park service spokeswoman in California, who referred inquiries on the property’s annual operating costs and how Chavez’s legacy will be interpreted to visitors, back to a Washington official who did not respond.

The Antiquities Act has allowed presidents since 1906 to offer national monument protection for 125 properties that contain objects of historic or scientific interest.

However, critics on Capitol Hill say Obama abused his authority in creating this monument to shore up support among Latinos and the labor union.

The union has not made any campaign donations to the Obama campaign, although it has made moderate contributions to past California campaigns and the state Democratic party. On the national level, the union is a player in Washington influence circles, having spent nearly $300,000 from 2002 to 2008 to lobby Congress, and $30,000 since 2009 to lobby lawmakers as well as the Labor Department on issues dealing mostly with immigration, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Additions to the National Park System should result from careful public review and a vote by Congress, not secret election-year deals cut behind closed doors at the White House,” said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. “This national monument designation is an unnecessary use of presidential powers and appears to be based more on politics than sound policy.”

“In addition, the costs and any liabilities associated with running and maintaining this site are unknown at a time when President Obama has led us to trillion-dollar annual budget deficits and there are millions of dollars in backlogged maintenance for our existing parks, Hastings said.”

The foundation does not provide numbers on how many yearly visitors pay the $3 entrance fee, but according to the Associated Press “the La Paz property is quiet and peaceful except for the regular sound of trains and the occasional chatter of school children who come by the busloads to learn about Chavez’s movement. Lizards, squirrels and wild birds abound.”

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