So what if Arnold Schwarzenegger voted for Proposition 187? It should not be a defining issue in the recall campaign. The courts long ago put that mean-spirited voter initiative in the dustbin of history, and there is little the actor-turned-politician can do to revive it even if he is elected to replace Gov. Gray Davis in the Oct. 7 recall election.
To refresh memories, 187 barred illegal immigrants from state-funded social services, most notably public hospitals and schools. The courts have long held that immigration is a federal, not state, responsibility, which is why a federal judge voided Proposition 187 just weeks after it was approved in 1994. So immigration is one of those rare political issues in which what a local or state politician says usually matters a lot more than what he or she can actually do.
Thus far, Schwarzenegger is saying the right things about California’s large and hard-working immigrant population, in noteworthy contrast to former Gov. Pete Wilson, who said too many of the wrong things (about Mexican immigrants in particular) when Proposition 187 was on the ballot.
Most Latino voters have never forgiven Wilson for that, and his 187 stance has dogged California’s Republican Party since. That’s why Democrats are now trying to tarnish Schwarzenegger, who voted for 187 and counts Wilson among his top campaign advisors.
Like most voter initiatives, Proposition 187 was a legal mess written by amateurs. Even its fundamental premise was wrong -- that public services, rather than jobs, draw illegal immigrants to California.
But Proposition 187 was one of those populist efforts in which symbolic impact mattered as much as -- if not more than -- specifics. Californians voted for it, I am convinced, less because they actually wanted to see Latino kids tossed out of public schools than because they wanted to send a message: Washington needed to “do something” about illegal immigration. And the message got through.
What still resonates about 187 today is how that message was conveyed, most especially by Wilson and other Republican candidates (and a few Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein) who hitched their political fortunes to it once political consultants identified immigration as a “wedge issue” that would help them get support from conservative white voters.
As often happens in political campaigns, the debate over Proposition 187 was not a thoughtful discussion of the reasons for illegal immigration, or a careful analysis of its cost and benefits. Instead, 187’s proponents -- aided and abetted by a desperate Wilson campaigning for reelection -- turned the campaign into an orgy of Mexican-bashing.
And the reason Latino audiences still boo at the very mention of Pete Wilson’s name is because they remember, better than most Anglo Californians do, hateful political TV ads that featured scary footage of Mexicans sneaking across the border or that portrayed Latino schoolchildren as a threat to California.
There is plenty to fault about Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign -- the lack of specifics, an overreliance on Hollywood glitz, among other things -- but at least he has not been virulently anti-immigrant. Quite the opposite, in fact. As he showed last week in his press conference, Schwarzenegger can speak with real passion about his years as a poor young immigrant from Austria.
It will probably take more than that for Schwarzenegger, or any other Republican, to draw many Latino votes away from Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. But finding such common ground with Latinos is a pretty good place for any would-be California governor to start reaching out to this state’s emerging majority.
Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.