A Dissenting Vote on the Endorsement of Pete Wilson

The Times on Sunday published an editorial endorsing Gov. Pete Wilson for reelection, the first time this newspaper has endorsed a gubernatorial candidate in more than 20 years.

As deputy editor of the editorial pages, I played a role in the deliberations that led up to its publication. Unfortunately, my deeply felt belief that Wilson does not deserve The Times' endorsement did not carry the day. Under normal circumstances, I would quietly accept that decision and move on. This time I cannot. Because this is not just another political campaign. And the Wilson endorsement is not--as a senior colleague whom I respect tried to convince me--just another endorsement.

For me, a Mexican American born and reared in California and a journalist here for more than 20 years, this campaign is unprecedented in the harm it does--permanent damage, I fear--to an ethnic community I care deeply about and a state I love. The reason, of course, is its weapon of choice: the complex and emotional issue of illegal immigration.

In the form of Proposition 187--the mean-spirited and unconstitutional ballot initiative that would deprive "apparent illegal aliens" of public health services and immigrant children of public education--the immigration issue has become the cornerstone of Wilson's desperate and cynical effort to win a second term.

I say cynical because Wilson has chosen to discuss the immigration issue not on the high plane one would expect from the governor of the nation's largest state--a man who could be President someday. Instead he has taken the low road, using alarmist rhetoric and frightening television ads that portray illegal immigrants in the ugliest, most negative terms. He is making illegal immigrants scapegoats for larger economic problems, like the defense cutbacks that so devastated the California economy.

So I must protest against this awful, and unnecessary, campaign in the strongest way I know how--if only to live with my conscience after the voters render their judgment on both Wilson and Proposition 187 on Nov. 8.

Please note how I link the two campaigns--Wilson the candidate and 187 the ballot measure. That is pivotal to my reasoning and to the fundamental difference I now feel with some of my superiors. For I am speaking as a Mexican American, and in the eyes of the vast majority of Mexican Americans--California's largest single ethnic group at 6.1 million people--Wilson's campaign and the Proposition 187 cannot be separated. Lord knows, the Wilson campaign has made no effort to separate the two in the minds of anxious voters.

I say that with the confidence of someone who has covered Mexican American politics in this state for many years. And sources I trust have told me that the same can be said of this state's fastest-growing minority, the 2.8 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

I know that my dissent may seem overstated to many reasonable people. But consider: As recently as a few weeks ago, opinion polls showed Proposition 187 getting support even among a majority of Latino voters. That's because, as I have written often on these pages, Latinos are not all that different from voters of any other ethnic group. They worry about the economy and crime and other issues. And they will tell pollsters that they, too, wish that someone would "do something" about the problem of illegal immigration.

But that apparent consensus breaks down when you get to specifics, like asking Latinos whether distant relatives back home should be able to come to this country, legally or not. That's why, with the election season in the home stretch and Latinos starting to realize just how Proposition 187 would hurt their families, friends and neighbors, opinion has swung dramatically against the initiative. A Times poll published last week showed that support had dropped to only 22% among Latino registered voters--a number that does not take into account the sentiment of all the Latinos who cannot vote because they are too young or are not citizens. Even right-wing Republicans like Ronald Reagan could count on at least 30% of the Latino vote. So it is clear that Latinos have turned overwhelmingly against 187, and are likely to also turn against Pete Wilson--and not just on Nov. 8.

I have known and liked Wilson since he was mayor of San Diego. I don't think he's a bigot. But he made a terrible mistake in this campaign. By aligning himself with the immigration issue in its most nativist form, he has given legitimacy to an ugly streak of bigotry in California. And Latinos everywhere will never forgive him for that.

We can no more forget what Wilson has done in the 1994 campaign than African Americans can forget how segregationist governors like Arkansas' Orval Faubus tried to keep black children from getting a decent education in public schools, or than Jews can forget the Rev. Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" remark in the 1984 presidential campaign. And whatever else can be said about Jackson, he made the remark in public only once and has been trying to bury it ever since. Wilson, on the other hand, has been campaigning against illegal immigrants from Mexico for the better part of a year. Just imagine how Jews would feel if "Hymietown" had been the keystone of a yearlong campaign.

Those are harsh comparisons, but they are not entirely mine. I know that many thousands, if not millions, of Mexican Americans and Mexican citizens feel the same way. Wilson's pro-187 campaign will stick in our craws for generations, the way "Hymietown" will probably always haunt Jackson.

That is why The Times' endorsement of Wilson is not just another endorsement, and why I must register my dissent so publicly. I want people out there to know--especially the young Latinos and Asian Americans who will be the leaders of this state in the future, and, I hope, readers of this newspaper as well--that not all of us here at The Times feel good about Pete Wilson. Many of us share your anger.

Frank del Olmo is deputy editor of the editorial pages.

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