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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 187 : Lungren Backs Prop. 187; Late Stance Assailed : Though citing concerns, attorney general calls measure the right vehicle for constitutional test. Election rival Tom Umberg accuses him of caving in to supporters of the measure.


SACRAMENTO — After holding out for months, Republican Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren declared his support for Proposition 187 on Monday, one day before the measure aimed at denying services to illegal immigrants will be decided by voters.

The campaign of Lungren's Democratic opponent, Tom Umberg, immediately assailed the late call, charging the attorney general with caving in to adherents on a measure that an Umberg aide said was unconstitutional and close to being racist.

Lungren, in a detailed, two-page written statement, said the ballot measure is "an imperfect answer" and contains "certain shortcomings," but is the right vehicle to carry the matter before the U.S. Supreme Court to decide its constitutionality.

The attorney general said he "shares a concern" about the possibility of Proposition 187 driving children out of schools. But he also expressed worries about "the continuation of large-scale defiance of the immigration laws of this country."

Furthermore, the attorney general said he was "particularly disturbed" by suggestions, which he said emerged in the debates over Proposition 187, that "there is no essential difference between the status of one who is here legally and one who is here illegally."

Opponents of Proposition 187 expressed surprise and regret over Lungren's decision. "I think Dan Lungren is just toeing the party line," said Scott Macdonald, spokesman for Taxpayers Against 187. "It could have had a large impact if he had come out against it. But this way, he's just falling in line like another domino."

The proposition's boosters meanwhile voiced relief that the attorney general had belatedly jumped aboard. "I felt Dan was going to come around," said Robert Kiley, political strategist for the pro-187 campaign committee. "Why he held out for so long I don't know. But we're glad that he's on board."

Lungren has been attacked repeatedly by election rival Umberg--an opponent of the ballot measure--for failing to take a stand on Proposition 187.

George Urch, Umberg's campaign manager, said Lungren was exhibiting poor leadership "to finally take a position on an important issue just hours before the polls open and 136 days after the initiative finally qualified for the ballot. It's also unfortunate he reached the wrong conclusion. The initiative is clearly unconstitutional, will create additional public safety problems for the state and borders on being racist."

Lungren's stance on Proposition 187 has been eagerly awaited because the attorney general's office would play a crucial role in enforcing and defending the measure, which is expected to prompt a blizzard of lawsuits if it passes.

The ballot measure would bar illegal immigrants from receiving most government services and calls for local educational, health care and law enforcement officials to report suspected illegal immigrants to state and federal authorities.

Some political analysts suggested that Lungren succumbed to internal GOP pressure. Republican candidates by and large are staunch backers of Proposition 187, which is a centerpiece of Gov. Pete Wilson's reelection campaign.

"This is Dan Lungren positioning himself as a rock-solid conservative," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School. "This proposal has long been a litmus test for the hard right in this state. It's another indication of the ongoing battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party."

But she also suggested that Lungren's announcement would have little dramatic impact on either the outcome of the attorney general's race or the vote on Proposition 187. "It just reconfirms the battle lines and comes so late that any impact that might have come doesn't have time to build momentum," Jeffe said.

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