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A Flirtation With the GOP Turns Cold : Politics: Wilson's embrace of Prop. 187 will have repercussions as new Latino voters enter the electorate.

November 06, 1994|HARRY P. PACHON | Harry P. Pachon is president of the Tomas Rivera Center, a national policy - research institute based in Claremont

The first statewide poll to focus specifically on California Latino voters bears some unpleasant surprises for Gov. Pete Wilson and other politicians who have jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon. Contrary to conventional wisdom and to views promulgated by such groups as the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR), Latino voters are not buying the arguments put forth on behalf of Proposition 187. The poll, commissioned by the Tomas Rivera Center, KVEA-TV (the Telemundo affiliate in Los Angeles) and La Opinion, the largest Spanish newspaper in the nation, shows that Latino voters are overwhelmingly rejecting Proposition 187. Moreover, rejection of Proposition 187 is accompanied by a turning away from Wilson and GOP senatorial candidate Mike Huffington. Poll results indicate that Wilson will be lucky to get 25% of the Latino vote, which would be the smallest share that any statewide Republican candidate has won in modern times.

Will this make a difference in the outcome Tuesday? Not likely, unless it's a close race between Wilson and Democratic challenger Kathleen Brown.

Although one out of every four Californians is Latino, only one out of 11 voters is. Close to two-thirds of California Latinos are ineligible to vote because they are minors or non-citizens. Politically, this means that Latino voter influence manifests itself only when the contest is a dead heat. Since 5% of the Latino vote equals 1% of the total state vote, then Latinos could provide the winning edge in a race that closes neck-and-neck.

The gubernatorial contest is not likely to be that close. Yet a troublesome issue remains. This election apparently will polarize Latino voters and non-Latinos. If the election goes as the polls predict, Pete Wilson will assume office with a no-confidence vote from the state's largest minority group. More than two-thirds of Latinos polled feel that Wilson is promoting anti-immigrant hatred with his support for Proposition 187, and that the immigration debate in California is fostering a climate that will result in discrimination and racism against Latinos. True or not, this is what Latino voters perceive, a depressing omen for Wilson's governorship should he win a second term.

Why is the gap between Latino voters and the rest of the California electorate so large? The best explanation may be that the undocumented immigrant has become synonymous with the Latino immigrant. Yet political demographics give us another possible reason. It is a little-known fact that significant numbers of Latino voters in the state are foreign-born naturalized citizens. Quietly, and with little fanfare, close to 200,000 legal Mexican immigrants in the past decade have become American citizens--most of them in California. Mexican-born naturalized U.S. citizens make up close to 10% of the Mexican American electorate. The percentages are probably higher for other Latin American-origin naturalized citizens.

The Latino electorate turned its attention to this election at the point when many politicos were engaging in shameless immigrant bashing and when images on television portrayed the illegal as being from "south of the border." The realization may have finally hit: The illegal alien them is really us.

The fallout of this polarization of the electorate won't be clear for some time. A common assumption among political analysts has been that the Republican Party is making slow but steady inroads into the California Latino vote. In American political history, however, there are defining events that influence ethnic communities' political allegiances. African Americans, for example, became much more loyal--and important--to the Democratic Party after 1964 because of its civil-rights commitment. Conversely, Cuban Americans flocked to the Republican Party after their perceived betrayal by the Kennedy Administration. Will 1994 serve as a similar watershed election for California's Latino electorate?

If so, Republican candidates are going to have a rough time. Throughout the next decade, well over 1 million new Latino voters will enter the California electorate from two streams. Latino voters who will come of age (remember, more than one-third of Latinos in California today are under 18) and Latino immigrants who will become naturalized citizens (and who register to vote at rates higher than native-born Americans).

Political memories are long-lasting in ethnic communities. For the GOP, the hope is that Latinos don't follow the old Irish American saying: "Don't get mad, get even."

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