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The Legacy of Proposition 187 Cuts Two Ways

A.G. Block is executive editor of State Net, publishers of California Journal, a monthly nonpartisan public-affairs magazine.

In the summer of 1994, many Californians believed that their state was being overrun with illegal immigrants, mostly Latinos, and that the federal government was powerless to turn them back. A lingering recession aggravated this perception, and some people even feared that the “California dream” was over.

Enter Pete Wilson. By supporting Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that denied a range of state services to illegal immigrants, the incumbent Republican governor aimed to exploit the anti-immigrant mood politically. He and proponents of 187 ran a fear-based campaign that blurred the distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, or even between Latino citizens and non-citizens. The campaign motivated the GOP’s mostly white base, making Wilson and the initiative victorious. But it came at a great cost, for it also drove Latinos into the arms of the Democrats.

That was eight years ago. The current Republican candidate for governor, Bill Simon Jr., is not connected to Proposition 187 or Wilson. Moreover, the man in the White House speaks fluent Spanish and is popular among Latino voters in Texas, where he was governor. So, is the curse of Proposition 187 lifting for the GOP? Conversely, can Democrats continue to exploit fears of perceived Republican racism to secure the party’s base among ethnic voters?

Proposition 187’s most significant legacy is in the numbers it produced rather than the passions it inflamed. Latinos, whose percentage of the electorate has grown from 5% to 16% since 1994, now vote so overwhelmingly Democratic that Republicans have only a marginal chance to capture the governorship (or any other statewide office) in 2002 or to dent the huge majorities Democrats enjoy in both houses of the Legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation.

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This wasn’t always true. Before 1994, Republicans did relatively well among Latino voters, who tended to be entrepreneurial, middle class and conservative and who consistently gave statewide Republican candidates more than one-third of their votes. Since then, Republicans have been lucky to attract a quarter of that vote, in part because a chunk of their previous Latino support abandoned them in the wake of Proposition 187 and partly because of changes in the character of the Latino electorate.

“A whole new class of Latino voter has emerged in California since 187,” says pollster Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Institute. “And that’s a fundamental problem for the Republican Party. They are young and poor, and they are registering 3 to 1 Democratic, a trend that’s been holding steady for the past four years” and may continue in the future. “Proposition 187 was the force that motivated them to become citizens and to register--as Democrats.”

This is significant because, according to DiCamillo, those who have registered since 1994 now make up half the overall Latino vote, Republicans have to stop the bleeding among these new voters if they hope to compete effectively in California. Latinos now give Democrats such a huge edge, explains DiCamillo, that GOP candidates must win the non-Latino vote by nearly 9% to prevail statewide, a near-impossible task.

But some Republicans believe that the anger among Latinos aroused by Proposition 187 is fading. The Latino community, they contend, mirrors the political diversity of the general population, and therein lies new hope for the GOP. They point to President Bush as the salve that will heal wounds left by 187. Sal Russo, campaign manager for Simon, believes with others that the GOP could dramatically enhance its stature among Latinos if Bush appoints a Latino to the U.S. Supreme Court when, as expected, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retires this fall. That historic event could create what one observer calls “a whole new ballgame” in California, a point Democrats concede. "[Bush] could tout that as a legitimate piece of his record [to Latino voters],” says state Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. “At that point, they become competitive.”

Short of that, Republicans will only slowly escape the shadow of 187, aided by success in local and legislative races, says Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican analyst and publisher of the California Target Book, which follows the state’s legislative and congressional districts. “Many Assembly districts were made safer [during the 2001 redistricting] for Democrats by increasing Latino registration,” he explains. “But if Republicans play it smart, and recruit good candidates, [Democrats] may find that [the districts] are not as safely Democratic as they had planned them to be.”

That, say Hoffenblum and others, is because Latino voters are not a monolithic bloc, and Democrats have yet to consolidate their allegiance. Indeed, some Democrats worry that their party is treating the Latino vote as a given. They point to Latino unhappiness over how the new legislative and congressional districts were drawn, a process controlled exclusively by Democrats. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), for instance, has sued to overturn districts in San Diego and Los Angeles on the ground that Latino voting strength was diluted to benefit non-Latino Democratic incumbents and to discourage Latino challengers.

Bustamante sees no Democratic anxiety. “The ultimate goal is more Latino representation,” he says. “Although you might make a valid criticism of a couple of seats, overall, the plan was a vast benefit to the Latino community because it gives us the ability to elect more Latinos.”

Still, others worry that, like Republicans nearly a decade ago, Democrats rely too reflexively on the fear aroused by Proposition 187 to bind Latinos to the Democratic Party. They cite recent comments by Gov. Gray Davis. In an interview with The Times, Davis summoned the specter of Wilson and implied that Wilson’s support for Prop. 187 was emblematic of current Republican attitudes, Simon included.

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Just how long this fear tactic will continue to play among Latinos is anybody’s guess, especially as memories of 187 fade. But as Latinos, through the power of sheer numbers, become the political mainstream, it’s unlikely that their allegiance to the Democratic Party will rest solely on their animosity for Republicans. Instead, they will want Democrats to pay greater attention to issues that concern Latinos, such as education, jobs and economic opportunity.

Yet, Davis’ remarks may signal his strategy to keep fear alive. If so, he may squander an opportunity to create lifelong Democrats because a softer, more positive message is rarely noticed above the din created by hard-nosed demagogy.

That troubles former state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who warns that Proposition 187 won’t haunt Republicans forever. Although he would not comment directly on Davis’ remarks, Villaraigosa says, “We can’t rely exclusively on reminding voters of Republican connections to 187. Early on, in ’95, ’96, even ’98, we did. But now, we have to focus on an agenda. We won’t continue to have the loyalty and support from Latinos if we just harp on 187.”

As both parties grapple with the legacy of Proposition 187 and develop and refine the message they hope will attract and retain ethnic voters, it would be prudent to heed the words of Bustamante. “There is no radical ethnic agenda. A decent job. A safe neighborhood. A good school. An equal opportunity. Those things are important, not just to Latinos, but to every Californian.”

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