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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Brown May Be Catching Wave With Prop. 187

October 27, 1994|GEORGE SKELTON

"I ought to be dead," Kathleen Brown shouts, diagnosing her political health while competing with the loud drone of a small private airplane. "All those polls, all those articles, all summer long. I ought to be dead.

"But I am not. Something out there has been keeping me alive. And I am alive. I am well. I am in the ring. I've got the guy on the ropes. And he has nowhere to go."

For months, what has been keeping Brown alive in her slugfest with Gov. Pete Wilson is the Republican incumbent's unpopularity with the voters--"high negatives" they're called in the politics biz. Brown's own fighting ability has disappointed even her most ardent rooters--sluggish, threw the wrong punches, they complained.

Lately, the underdog Democrat has been running on adrenaline and spunk in her effort to become the first woman and the third Brown to be elected California governor. Most experts had counted her out. But now she and her strategists say they sense the battle finally turning her way.

Brown's debate performance two weeks ago--particularly her surprise revelation that a daughter had been date raped--showed a fiery, human side relatively few voters had seen. She looked sharp in contrast to the awkward governor.

Her 64-page "book"--a "plan" for "Building a New California"--has been ridiculed by Wilson and questioned as a political strategy by Democratic outsiders. But 1.1 million copies have been mailed to Democratic households and, in all, 1.8 million are in circulation. Whether or not anybody actually reads the thing, voters are getting the word that Brown does have a plan for governing. The charge that she doesn't stand for anything won't hold up.

And now, Brown may be catching a wave on Proposition 187, the ballot measure that would bar illegal immigrants from most public services and require school and health officials to snitch on suspects.

She began amplifying her criticisms of 187 just as many voters started backing away from the initiative. A new Times poll today shows support for 187 falling as voter impressions of Brown rise and she edges closer to Wilson.

*

Illegal immigration and the governor's race may be different subjects in the voters' minds, but that will change, Brown asserts as her plane flies north to Burbank. She is returning from ground zero for California politicking, the epicenter of emotion and controversy: the California-Mexico border.

Never before have so many candidates stumped along the border. Wilson has practically camped out there. Brown has been there several times.

On Tuesday, fittingly, she was interviewed on talk radio, which has emerged as a powerful swayer of political thought. Here it all converged: a candidate for California's top office broadcasting her views over an increasingly potent medium at the border, symbol of the season's hottest political issue.

She seized the moment with KABC's Michael Jackson--seated at a folding table on a patch of grass near the San Ysidro pedestrian walkway--to play an audio tape of Wilson debating her brother Jerry during the 1982 Senate race. Wilson then opposed penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants. (He now supports it, but says workers should carry a tamper-proof "legal residency" card.)

Brown also assailed Wilson again for pushing, as a senator, a guest farm worker program that opened up a giant loophole for illegal immigrants. (Wilson says the loophole was added by Democrats.)

Her message: Wilson is "a hypocrite cynically exploiting immigrants" to stay in office. The solution to illegal immigration is sealing the border, penalizing employers and deporting illegal felons--not passing Proposition 187.

*

This has been Wilson's issue and conventional wisdom suggests Brown should back off and fight him elsewhere. But, she says aboard the plane, this is about the incumbent's cynicism and character and her leadership. "I have been courageously right on 187 since Day 1," she says. "I've been standing for something."

And now, she believes, voters are recognizing all this while a linchpin of Wilson's campaign--187--corrodes; while one of his political strengths becomes a weakness.

As she sends up the red flag on 187, Brown continues, many of her apathetic supporters--especially Latinos--will become more motivated to vote.

I noted some insiders privately have complained that the disclosure of her daughter's rape distracted voters from her main campaign messages. "Politics is about a lot more than just messages," she replied. "It's about having somebody who is authentic and real and talks from the heart."

That is what many rooters had been trying to remind her of for months.

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