TUSTIN — Like other political neophytes who banded together last autumn for an all-out war against illegal immigration, Ronald Stephen Prince had a story to tell--a tale that would inspire the statewide "Save Our State" campaign.
His bitter account would become a campaign refrain: an illegal Canadian immigrant bilked him out of $500,000 in a construction project, and the judicial system offered no recourse. But it's also an account sharply disputed by court records and the Canadian himself, who has lived in the United States legally for almost 33 years.
Frustrated, this obscure, enigmatic Tustin accountant stood in front of a Vons supermarket with a clipboard and pen in hand, hoping to whip up public sentiment against illegal immigrants. Eventually, he would become one of the key leaders of the SOS campaign.
Though the sweeping initiative and its prickly package of immigration reforms has unleashed powerful emotions on all sides, its founders at the California Coalition for Immigration Reform have labored in political anonymity, escaping the celebrity and scrutiny that often focuses on the authors of controversial ballot initiatives with far-reaching consequences.
A handful of political beginners and seasoned veterans have cobbled together a powerful volunteer movement from a statewide campaign headquarters in Orange County that is a secret location even to some of the leaders.
Some of the key players are citizens like Prince who are avenging injustices they believe were committed against them at the hands of illegal immigrants. Others believe illegal immigration has unfairly drained American tax dollars. Still others with the same agenda also will reap financial benefits from the campaign. Although the campaign has been touted as a volunteer effort, at least three of the organizers have billed the SOS campaign for tens of thousands of dollars for political consulting services.
Alan C. Nelson, the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a co-author of the initiative, is owed $26,500 for his work, according to campaign finance reports.
Two other consultants, who have themselves petitioned for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, also have received more than $35,000 through June for managing the campaign and reimbursement of expenses, according to financial disclosure statements filed by the SOS committee. The consultants, Robert Kiley and his wife, Barbara--the mayor of Yorba Linda--are owed an additional $51,000 for their work.
The Kileys hosted the first strategy session that spawned the initiative, which would deny education, non-emergency health care and other public benefits to illegal immigrants. The measure, Proposition 187, faces a vote on Nov. 8.
When they all met last Oct. 5 at a posh, members-only Center Club in Costa Mesa, the future SOS leadership knew little about each other except that they shared the same contempt for illegal immigrants, a group some scorned in their newsletters for the "stench of urination, defecation, narcotics, savagery and death."
The 10-member group--which included Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia)--recognized that it lacked money and a statewide political organization. But it had the determination to do something more active than--as one participant, a newsletter publisher, put it--"wring hands . . . and drink tea."
They debated the issue for the entire day, settling on a strategy proposed by a political unknown, Prince: a statewide petition drive for an initiative to end public services to illegal immigrants.
A few weeks later, they would pick the name SOS--like the international distress signal--for their campaign while dining on Mexican food at a restaurant in Orange.
"Ron set everything up," recalled Barbara Coe, co-chairwoman of the coalition, who had a network of political contacts that Prince sorely lacked.
"It was all his idea. He said, 'If you people will pick up the ball, I will run with it.' "
For someone who has placed himself directly at the forefront of the state's most controversial ballot initiative, Prince has proved a private man.
At 46, the campaign co-chairman guards details about his personal life more zealously than the location of the SOS headquarters, which is a closely held secret because the leaders fear retaliation from their opponents.
Prince, who says he is a fifth-generation Californian, politely refuses to say where he was born (Long Beach), where he resides (Tustin or Downey, according to government agency records), prefers not to divulge his middle name (Stephen), or to disclose his place of employment. He is an accountant who used to work for his family's business in Downey, but now spends most of his workdays and weekends at the Tustin campaign office.
Why so private?