The Return of Wilson, Prop. 187

Times Staff Writer

As Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigns to lead California, the shadow of another California governor is complicating his efforts to win support among Latinos.

The governor is Pete Wilson, who won a second term in 1994 as the chief backer of Proposition 187, the successful ballot measure designed to deny illegal immigrants access to most public services.

Wilson now serves as a co-chairman of Schwarzenegger's campaign, a connection that has dominated the Spanish-language news media's coverage of the recall and is increasingly being used by the Republican actor's opponents.

Over the Labor Day weekend, for example, photos of Wilson and Schwarzenegger in a warm embrace were featured at rallies attended by largely Latino audiences.

The reason: Wilson remains a highly controversial figure among many Latinos, even five years after he left office. Proposition 187 was ultimately ruled unconstitutional, but bitterness still lingers over what some Latinos consider a racist law.

"For many of us, they were talking about our parents, our grandparents, our neighbors, our fellow students -- basically they were picking on our experience," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "You know people are passionate about it when even my mother is saying, 'We have to stop this Wilson.' Anyone associated with that guy, she won't vote for."

Schwarzenegger campaign officials said they are aware of the perception but believe their candidate can still win Latino votes. In an interview Tuesday with Fox 11 News, Schwarzenegger stressed that he is his own man.

"Remember there is a big difference. There is a big difference," he said. "There was the Wilson administration and there will be the Schwarzenegger administration. Two different men. Two different issues altogether."

Juan B. Botero, the Schwarzenegger campaign's new Spanish-language spokesman, called the push to connect Schwarzenegger and Wilson in the eyes of Latino voters a ploy based on fear.

"The Hispanic community needs to understand that just because Pete Wilson is one of two dozen co-chairs does not mean that Arnold and Pete Wilson agree on immigration," Botero said. "Arnold has his own views and ideas on immigration, and he is exploring the issue of immigration reform."

Schwarzenegger has said little about the subject during campaign appearances and interviews. He announced his opposition Tuesday to a bill that would give an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants the right to have driver's licenses, saying he's concerned it could result in fraud.

"I am an immigrant. I waited for 10 years to get my American citizenship," Schwarzenegger, who was born in Austria, said in a statement. "And I know firsthand how immigrants who come to this country and obey the laws have struggled to achieve their dreams. I am pro-immigrant. But we should not invite fraud or undermine law enforcement."

It was Wilson who told a television interviewer a few days after Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor that the actor had supported Proposition 187. On his Web site, the actor states: "Proposition 187 has been resolved by the courts. It is time to move on."

But some Latino voters said they aren't ready to move on.

Adrian Aguayo, 50, a Downey factory worker, says his passion against Proposition 187 -- and the governor who backed it -- has not cooled in the last nine years.

"Oh yeah," he said when asked about him. "Wilson was the racist governor."

Aguayo, who's lived in the U.S. since 1980, said he watched the Spanish-language newscasts and read the Los Angeles daily newspaper La Opinion during the tumultuous months leading up to the Proposition 187 vote.

"And that's the face they put on him, of a racist," he said.

Aguayo sees the same tone being used now, as Spanish news outlets hammer the connection between Wilson and Schwarzenegger.

"I don't know about the other candidates, but for us Latinos, if a candidate has the support of Pete Wilson, what can be expected of him? Well, nothing good," said Aguayo, standing outside a medical clinic in Paramount.

Julia Rodriguez, a 49-year-old Paramount homemaker, said she's a fan of Schwarzenegger's films but that the Wilson connection gives her pause.

"I think he's a good actor. We like his movies. But then I heard about that Wilson," Rodriguez said. Schwarzenegger "would just be Wilson's puppet."

Rodriguez, who immigrated from Mexico in the early 1980s and has a child in college, said she fears immigrants' rights would be trampled in a Schwarzenegger administration. She said she likes Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante because she believes his background as a Mexican American growing up in the rural Central Valley makes him more sensitive to issues facing immigrants.

Michelle Amador, 22, a Pacoima pharmaceuticals saleswoman, was an eighth-grader at San Fernando Junior High School when Proposition 187 passed.

"I don't remember much about it during that time, but my politics stem from that time," Amador said. "Between then and now it's still the same. It's like a direct attack.... I see Wilson as an attacker, a bad boy."

And like others, she said Wilson's role in the Schwarzenegger campaign makes it impossible for her to vote for the actor. "I wouldn't vote for anyone who Pete Wilson supports," she said. "I'd rather vote for my 10-year-old sister."

Democrats have seized on Wilson's connection to Schwarzenegger. In the Spanish-language news media, Democratic activists and elected officials have repeated the phrase "Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres" (Tell me who you go with and I'll tell you who you are). At rallies sponsored by labor groups, people waived placards showing Schwarzenegger's muscular body attached to Wilson's head.

"The [Proposition] 187 and Wilson association has been nailed like crazy by the Democrats," said Luis Arteaga, director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco, which studies Latino public opinion. "What we've found is that for many Latinos there are things in the Republican platform that are attractive -- smaller government, less taxes -- but the Republican label is so closely tied to Pete Wilson.... The Pete Wilson association is still very strong."

Experts stress that the Latino vote is far from monolithic. Indeed, despite the heated opposition to Proposition 187, exit polls suggested the ballot measure was supported by about 23% of Latinos.

Gina Bautista, a 31-year-old systems manager who lives in Temecula, believes Wilson's role in the Schwarzenegger campaign is irrelevant. What she wants to hear is as many candidates as possible take stands on taxes and immigration -- and so far, she said, she likes what she hears from Schwarzenegger.

"He wants to lower taxes, he's against illegal immigration; those are two big factors right there, right there he's scoring points," said Bautista, a third-generation Mexican American. "Pete Wilson was in office when I was in school, when I didn't care about politics. I'm not looking at the past, I'm looking at right now, into the future."

Botero, the Schwarzenegger campaign's new point person on Latino issues, said the candidate should be a role model for immigrants everywhere.

"I wouldn't be here if Arnold were anti-immigration, period," said Botero. "To imply that what could arguably be one of the most successful immigration stories, that he would use that success to turn on other immigrants, is ridiculous."

Guerra, the Loyola Marymount professor, believes that by demonizing Schwarzenegger, Democrats hope to mobilize Latinos to vote for Bustamante.

"From a Latino perspective, you couldn't have asked for a better situation [for Democrats]. A viable Latino candidate like Bustamante, and el cucuy of Latino politics, Wilson, lurking in the shadows," said Guerra, using the Spanish slang for boogeyman.

"This is sad," he added. "For years, Democrats attempted to mobilize Latinos on the basis of hope, and [with Proposition 187], Republicans were 10 times more successful on the basis of fear."

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