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CAPITOL JOURNAL

The Questions Everybody Is Asking

September 30, 1993|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — As often happens to astute politicians regarding simmering issues, state Treasurer Kathleen Brown got the word on this one from ordinary people--not from her advisers, the newspapers or polls.

For over a year, she traveled the state speaking before Rotary clubs and coffee klatsches and on talk radio. She would expound on her vision for California, the need to fundamentally restructure the state's economy, to rebuild infrastructure and to reform education. Then she would invite questions. And the result was invariable.

"Somebody would comment, 'You've talked about what you think is most important, but you've not talked about immigration,' " Brown says. "It became a pattern. This was on people's minds in a very personal, vehement kind of way. And I began asking myself questions I never had asked myself before."

Like, she says, "Why should we be spending our tax money to educate the children of illegal immigrants?" (Her answer, ultimately: "If we deny schooling to these children, we will end up with even more gangs, guns and graffiti.")

Meanwhile, other politicians also were hearing the citizens and loudly entering the dialogue--among them a potential campaign opponent, Gov. Pete Wilson.

Polls began picking up the voter ferment. The Times Poll in mid-September found that public outrage over illegal immigration had increased dramatically since March. Voters now ranked it third among the "most important" problems facing California, behind crime (No. 2) and the economy/unemployment (No. 1).

At the same time, Brown's potential rivals in the 1994 gubernatorial race--Wilson and fellow Democrat John Garamendi, the state insurance commissioner--were portraying her as just a charmer with a pedigree, shallow and non-specific.

Want specifics? Ask Brown anything about the treasurer's office, about bonds, credit ratings and investments. She'll talk you to sleep. But now, she concluded, it was time to move beyond those narrow confines and lay out her positions in a wide range of areas.

And she would start with illegal immigration because, she notes, "it is a big issue in California."

*

That decision took her Wednesday to a Town Hall luncheon of 500 civic leaders in Los Angeles, a traditional forum for politicians saying something they deem important.

Very briefly, the solutions she outlined involve getting tough with employers who hire illegal immigrants, creating a tamper-proof Social Security card that anyone must show to get a job, beefing up enforcement of labor laws, strengthening border controls and partially financing it with a $1 crossing toll, using the military to logistically back up the INS, returning convicted felons to their own countries and requiring proof of legal residency to receive non-emergency state health services.

This was the first of a series of major policy addresses, she explained. But it clearly also was something else: It was an effort to draw a line in the sand between her and the governor, to isolate him on the extreme right with the demagogues while she occupies the high ground of "common sense, fairness and responsibility."

"For many years," she said, "it was impossible to have a common-sense debate about illegal immigration. Anyone who brought it up was immediately branded a racist or kook. Today, we have a different problem: The only way to be heard . . . is to unveil a new idea that is more punitive than the last. . . . I finally concluded that the most valuable contribution I can make is to try to move the debate from one-upmanship to problem solving. It is no longer acceptable--if it ever was--to throw extreme or impractical proposals on the table just to make those who disagree look soft."

And that, she asserted, is exactly what Wilson has been doing with his proposed constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to U.S-born children of illegal immigrants. His proposal to free hospitals of the obligation to provide emergency care for illegal immigrants violates "simple human decency," she added.

The governor also is fanning the flames of racism, she intimated.

*

Wilson talked emotionally about that on Monday to Sacramento's Comstock Club.

"This doesn't have anything to do with race, though I am attacked as a racist," the governor said. "It has to do with (legal) status. . . . It has to do with the unfairness of spending your state tax dollars on illegal immigrants. . . . It is the responsibility of (the Mexican) government to provide for their people and not ours."

Garamendi, meanwhile, is staying clear of the debate. "Enforce the present laws," he says. "We don't need new laws."

The voters Brown and Wilson are listening to seem to think otherwise.

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