Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno created some political turbulence Friday in the Democratic race for the 69th Assembly District when he said he would vote for a proposed initiative to bar illegal immigrants from public hospitals and schools.
Moreno, who made the comment during the taping of a KOCE-TV candidates debate, reversed his position several hours later, explaining he “misspoke” and that he had not had a “full understanding” of the initiative.
By time Moreno reversed his position, his opponents had already tried to take advantage of Moreno’s remarks.
Moreno’s political rivals said they were surprised to hear Moreno say he would vote for the initiative if it qualifies for the November ballot, because Moreno’s campaign is expected to receive up to $20,000 from Latino Assembly members who vehemently oppose the measure.
After learning about Moreno’s comments, Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Alhambra) said she was puzzled, particularly because she believes the initiative is “racist on its face.”
“I’m going to give (Moreno) an opportunity to explain. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and (make him) give me accountability for his answers (during the debate),” Martinez said.
If passed, the “Save Our State” initiative would require schools to verify the immigration status of pupils and report to law enforcement agencies the names of parents they believe are in the country illegally. Illegal immigrants could receive emergency care under the proposed initiative, but hospital officials would also be required to report “persons who are apparent illegal aliens.”
The initiative is immensely popular in Orange County and was favored by 62% of statewide voters in a Times Poll in March.
During the sometimes testy, hourlong debate that included the four Democrats, four Republicans and a Libertarian, the candidates were asked how they would vote on the initiative in November.
“You want to know what I’ve done? I’ve already signed that initiative because you have to give voters a chance to vote on it,” Moreno said. When the moderator pressed for a specific answer, Moreno replied: “I will vote yes on it.”
Several hours after the debate ended, Moreno issued a statement explaining his reversal.
In the news release, Moreno said he supports parts of the initiative, including denying welfare benefits to illegal immigrants and increased penalties for the manufacture, distribution and use of false documents. But he opposes any proposal that denies education or health care benefits.
“After having an opportunity to review the initiative thoroughly, I find that I cannot in good conscience support such a mean-spirited, wrongheaded proposal that does nothing to resolve the real problems associated with illegal immigration,” Moreno said in the statement.
During the debate, two other Democrats seeking the central Orange County Assembly seat also said they would vote for the measure.
Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce President Michael Metzler said: “This is a nation of laws. . . . This goes to the heart of what the law is and I support it.”
Santa Ana businessman John M. Patterson said, “If you’re illegal aliens, you’re illegal.”
The only candidate opposed to the measure is political activist Zeke Hernandez.
As soon as the taping ended, Hernandez and Arturo Montez, president of the Orange County chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, targeted Moreno for criticism, claiming he was trying to court the conservative vote while seeking the support of influential Latino leaders.
“He has to get some votes outside the Latino community, as do I, but there’s a way to take a stand on an issue without ignoring or turning your back on your community,” Hernandez said before learning of Moreno’s policy reversal.
Montez, meanwhile, notified state Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), the chairman of the Legislature’s Latino Caucus, of Moreno’s comments.
Latinos make up about two-thirds of the population in the district, which includes Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. But because voter registration among Latinos is traditionally low, whites account for more than 70% of the district’s voters, according to a 1993 Times Orange County computer analysis.
The seat is currently held by Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove), who is stepping aside to run for state attorney general and has endorsed Metzler.
Metzler’s campaign manager, Cate Whiting, surmised Moreno’s campaign could suffer as a result of his comment because he has courted the support of the Assembly’s Latino members.
“I think he will have some explaining to do,” Whiting said.
Assemblyman Joe Baca, (D-San Bernardino), who has endorsed Hernandez, said he also would be discussing the issue with Polanco, the Latino caucus chairman.
“I cannot speak for everyone (in the Latino caucus),” Baca said, “but Polanco is my seat mate (in the Assembly) and he definitely would be against the initiative because we have consistently fought the battles against discrimination of Latinos.”
The television debate airs on KOCE-TV on June 4 and June 6.