Sending a Message With Initiative

There's a familiar sound to the public debate over the anti-illegal immigration measure on the Nov. 8 ballot, a sound that we've heard in previous fights over "message" initiatives. You can hear the electorate telling opposition leaders to go jump off a long pier--or words to that effect.

The same is true with the less controversial "three strikes" initiative.

There's also another familiar sound--the sound of the opposition in an initiative battle.

In each case--especially regarding the illegal immigration proposal--opponents are trying to reason with voters by saying this particular initiative is badly flawed. Yes, there is a definite problem that must be solved, they say, but this proposal isn't the answer. It hasn't been thought out. It goes too far and in the wrong direction. And it would cost billions in tax dollars.

That strategy--support the goal, but pick apart the proposal, especially on fiscal grounds--usually works when voters view the ballot proposition as complex. When in doubt, they vote no. Several initiatives come to mind: School vouchers last year, "Big Green" in 1990, most insurance reforms in 1988.

But when it's an emotional issue, one voters react to viscerally, they tend to discount the campaign rhetoric--and the civic leaders, the commentators and the editorial writers--and go with their gut. The best example may be Proposition 13, the property tax cutter of 1978.

"When voters are looking to send a message, it's harder to pick apart initiatives," notes Stu Mollrich, one of the Proposition 13 strategists. "And voters this year really want to put illegal immigration on the national radar screen."

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I called some voters who recently had been surveyed by The Times Poll and had said they wouldn't mind talking to a reporter. The poll had found likely voters supporting the anti-illegal immigration measure, Proposition 187, by a landslide margin of 62% to 28%. They were backing the "three strikes" initiative, Proposition 184, by 59% to 29%. (Prodded by 184, Sacramento has enacted a similar law.)

I wanted to know why voters were dismissing the arguments of the opposition campaigns, especially the main arguments about huge losses in tax dollars. Opponents of 187 warn that the measure could cost the state $15 billion annually in federal revenue because California would be in violation of federal law. Los Angeles city schools alone could lose $450 million, they say. As for 184, opponents contend, its tougher sentencing could double the prison population and cost many billions, meaning likely cutbacks in education funding.

"I think they're blowing smoke basically," said Cliff Powell, 34, a Eureka warehouseman who is trying to start a home mail order business. "The federal government is blackmailing us (on 187)."

Powell, like most of those interviewed, doubted that the Clinton Administration would ever cut off federal funds to California. Not with President Clinton facing reelection in two years and needing to carry the state.

"Won't that make a beautiful political picture," said Dr. Paul Bedell, 57, a Camarillo physician. "People who think (politics) doesn't make much difference will say, 'My God, the federal government is suing the state, saying it has to spend money on illegal immigrants! That's why we can't maintain our highways and bridges, buy airplanes to spray water on fires, prepare for earthquakes that are bound to occur.' "

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Pat Lovejoy, 48, is a Torrance computer teacher who works at home and listens to a lot of talk radio. "This fellow called in to say he's had relatives sitting in Canada for x number of years waiting to come here, while everyone else just walks on in," she said. "Hey, I don't know what the solution is, but let's try this (187) for a while."

As for Washington's threat to cut off funds, she said: "I'd be willing to bargain with them a bit. They're not going to want to be thrown out of office."

Laurie McDaniel, 43, a Garden Grove mother who does volunteer work, said she'd be willing to pay higher taxes to jail more criminals. She's particularly incensed that the man convicted of attempted murder after stabbing Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter seven years ago has been paroled from prison.

Dan Pettit, 35, a Long Beach mailman, said it may be "ludicrous" to imprison for life the three-time loser who recently stole a slice of pizza from four children on the Redondo Beach Pier. "But I'll vote for (184) until we can get our judicial system worked around," he said.

As for 187, he commented: "It's one of those things that's a drastic move. We're trying to say something. It may not be perfect, but it's on the right track."

And all these voters' message to the politicians: If you don't like the way we deal with problems, deal with them yourselves first.

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