Arizona action raises thorny issue for California Republicans

California Republicans have spent 16 years trying to repair the wounds from their long-ago collision with the explosive issue of illegal immigration. Then, in an election season no less, all the tumult came rushing back last week amid the national furor over Republican-controlled Arizona’s decision to pass the nation’s toughest immigration law.

Democrats contended that the measure would lead to racial profiling and uniformly denounced it, particularly the requirement that police demand citizenship papers from those they suspect are undocumented. Republicans here split into camps. Their candidates issued excruciatingly detailed statements of their positions that, in many cases, made their positions indecipherable.

To many who had lived through the Republican Party’s slump in California — one caused at least in part by the animosities from 1994’s anti-illegal immigration measure, Proposition 187 — it was deja vu all over again.

“It just keeps rearing its ugly head,” said Richard Loa, chairman of the California branch of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, who pleaded for rational and reasonable discourse on a subject that often has provided neither.

It was stark irony, at least, that the issue blew up nationally at the same time that California Republicans could point to greater diversity than ever among their public figures. Abel Maldonado, the son of a Mexican migrant, was sworn in as lieutenant governor last week, making him the highest ranking nonwhite GOP figure in recent California history.

The party also has the potential of electing its most exotic slate of candidates in memory in the June primary; women and minorities are among the front-runners for governor, U.S. Senate and statewide officeholder nominations.

Timing is everything, though, and for some in the party it seemed that they had been transported back to the bad old days after 1994. Proposition 187, which would have cut state services to illegal immigrants, is a cautionary tale, an issue that was popular initially but has had woeful repercussions among the voters that now matter.

Although it was invalidated by the courts, the measure is blamed by independent analysts and Republicans for cementing an image of the party as one controlled by and for older whites — mostly men.

In its aftermath, Latinos, the state’s fastest-growing demographic group, have aligned themselves in huge numbers with Democratic candidates, a significant shift from pre-187 trends. Independent voters — another fast-growing group — have recoiled as well, and the party suffered image-wise among women too.

Some Republicans were dismayed last week that their colleagues from next door had undercut the California party’s efforts to shore up its standing among those key groups.

“Arizona Republicans have handed California Democrats a great issue for November,” said Republican consultant Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “They have reminded Latino voters of exactly the reason they don’t like Republicans in the first place.”

Distaste threatened to spread to other groups, like moderates and women, he said. “It reminds everyone who has an aversion to the Republican Party why they don’t like it,” he said.

Not everyone agreed. Some suggested that any fallout from the immigration issue would be swamped by anger toward incumbents in this restive political season — and in California, that would play out more dramatically against Democrats.

State party Chairman Ron Nehring brushed aside concerns that, by motivating other voters, the issue would blunt the advantage Republicans expect in November. He argued that President Obama would take the blame for the Arizona measure. “I’m not surprised that the Democrats would seize on anything they possibly can to paint the Republican Party to be anti-immigrant,” Nehring said.

The sensitivity of the subject was clear in the actions of the GOP candidates and in comments from many in the party who would discuss it only anonymously.

Meg Whitman, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for governor, was the sole major candidate to issue a clear denunciation of the Arizona bill. Her remarks were in keeping with her campaign stance on illegal immigration, which has come under fire from opponent Steve Poizner as being too permissive.

“I understand Arizona’s frustration with the federal government’s failure to solve the country’s illegal immigrant problem,” she said in a statement. “However, should such legislation be proposed in California, I would oppose it because I believe there are far more effective and suitable ways to fight illegal immigration.”

Poizner, who has called for a return to a Proposition 187-style ban on public services for illegal immigrants, at first said he would watch the Arizona results closely. On Friday, after Arizona legislators narrowed the law to require scrutiny only of people whom police stop, detain or arrest, he offered support. He said the measure “takes a bold approach to dealing with illegal immigration while making it crystal clear that racial profiling is both illegal and wrong.”

Among the candidates in the three-way fight for the U.S. Senate nomination, both Assemblyman Chuck DeVore and former congressman Tom Campbell said they supported the Arizona measure. (They weren’t on the party’s extreme edge. That post belonged to U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of San Diego County, who told a “tea party” gathering that he favored deporting the children of illegal immigrants, even if those children were U.S. citizens.)

The third Senate candidate, former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, issued a blizzard of comments that left unclear precisely where she stood.

“Instead of vilifying the people of Arizona, we should be demanding that the federal government do its job and secure the border,” she said in a statement. “The Arizona law is a reflection of the outrage felt by the state’s residents.” She also said she found the measure “problematic” and hoped it would serve “only as an interim measure.”

In an interview Friday with CNN, Fiorina had to be asked repeatedly whether she supported or opposed the measure. Her questioner finally gave up and changed the subject to offshore oil drilling.

Even Maldonado was circumspect. Answering questions after his swearing-in, he said the country needed federal immigration reform.

“Not one that has one [law] in Arizona, in Nevada,” he said, adding that “I’m not happy with some of the issues that are going on in Arizona.”

For Republican candidates, the imperative now is to be “very careful with this issue,” said one prominent party leader, who declined to speak with his name attached. “I think there’s a chance here for people on each side of the aisle to look like adults,” he said.

The effect on candidates is unpredictable, Republicans and Democrats suggested last week. In the governor’s race, Whitman’s more moderate position on illegal immigration may have inoculated her against much of the anger of those who fiercely oppose the Arizona law. (She also has said she opposes Proposition 187, even if it was propelled by her campaign chairman, former Gov. Pete Wilson). Were Poizner to win the nomination, he might be in more dire straits, analysts said.

Democrats, being Democrats, could certainly turn the gift horse into a nag by appearing to pander too much. The theatrics of the many protest marches afoot could also affect public perceptions: The dominance of Mexican flags in anti-Proposition 187 marches was blamed for blunting opposition to that measure.

Without doing much of anything, however, Democrats may see the Republican Party’s fortunes fall.

“The Republican Party — it’s digging its own hole on this one,” Mendelsohn said.

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